REDMOND, Wash. – Planetary Resources was founded as an asteroid mining company, but a fresh infusion of $21.1 million in investment puts the emphasis on a space frontier that’s closer to home: Earth observation.
“It leverages everything that we have been working on for the last several years … and it moves us forward in the direction of asteroid prospecting,” Planetary Resources’ president and CEO, Chris Lewicki, said this week during a tour of the company’s Redmond headquarters.
The Series A funding announced today will be used to deploy and operate Planetary Resources’ Earth observation program, known as Ceres. The lead investor is the OS Fund, founded by Los Angeles venture capitalist Bryan Johnson. Other investors include Idea Bulb Ventures, Vast Ventures, Grishin Robotics, Conversion Capital, the Seraph Group, Space Angels Network and Google co-founder Larry Page.
In a statement, Johnson said Ceres will represent “a seismic shift for the new space economy.”
Planetary Resources also announced it would be shutting down what was once a wildly popular Kickstarter project that would have enabled backers to take “space selfie” pictures with the company’s space telescopes. Lewicki said all 17,614 backers would be offered full refunds.
Even though Planetary Resources is tightening its focus on Earth observation, Lewicki said that close-in focus is fully consistent with the company’s long-term strategy. Ceres will make use of the same hardware that’s being tested to look for potentially valuable asteroids in deep space.
By 2019, the company plans to have a constellation of 10 Arkyd 100 microsatellites in low Earth orbit, equipped with thermal infrared and hyperspectral sensors that can track water content, crop growth, oil and gas leaks and forest fires.
Such information has a variety of applications: Farmers can get advance warning of potential trouble spots in their fields. Commodity traders can anticipate what’ll happen to crop prices. The petroleum industry can watch for leaks in storage and transmission systems, as well as promising spots for oil and gas exploration. Government agencies can identify high-risk areas for wildfires in advance, and track forest fires day and night.
Lewicki said the Ceres system could drive the price of such satellite intelligence down to a tenth of what it is today.
Mining asteroids in the mid-2020s
The same types of sensors can spot the best prospects for mining near-Earth asteroids. Lewicki said Planetary Resources’ development plan still envisions using Arkyd spacecraft to find promising asteroids by the end of this decade, and extract the first material from a near-Earth asteroid by the middle of the next decade.
The first material to be mined will almost certainly be water, Lewicki said. “Water is the resource that will define the 21st century, on Earth and in space,” he explained.
Today, it costs thousands of dollars per pound to send water, fuel and other essentials into space. If the ice on asteroids can be mined, it can be converted into drinking water, breathable air and rocket propellants for the outer-space equivalent of filling stations.
That day may come sooner than people think: This month, Lockheed Martin and Orbital ATK laid out concepts that could make use of space resupply stations for lunar and Martian exploration in the 2020s.
As the industry matures, other materials such as metals could be mined for manufacturing. “It’s at least a trillion-dollar industry,” Lewicki said.
But first, Planetary Resources has to design, build and test several generations of spacecraft. That’s what’s happening at the Redmond headquarters, where more than 50 employees work.
Half startup, half rocket lab
The atmosphere is half startup, half rocket lab. A full-size statue of Boba Fett from “Star Wars,” lent to the company by one of its investors, stands guard by the door. On the upper floor, rows of desks and monitors share office space with a table-sized Super Star Destroyer assembled from Lego blocks.
Even the name of Planetary Resources’ line of satellites, Arkyd, has a “Star Wars” connection: The etymology goes back to Arakyd Industries, the company that made the droids for the Galactic Empire.
Other parts of the building are all business: In an electronics lab, the guts of Arkyd satellites are built from the microprocessors up. Spacecraft components are fabricated and tested in a two-story-tall machine shop. Final assembly takes place in a dust-free clean room where the engineers are required to wear gowns and gloves, booties and hairnets.
Two Arkyd 6 satellites, each weighing about 20 pounds and standing about a foot tall, sit on a test table inside the clean room. One of them is connected by cables to a control room next door, where engineers monitor the satellites’ vital signs during simulated orbital operations.
These two test satellites are equipped with thermal imaging sensors. They build on the knowledge gained from an Arkyd 3 prototype that went into orbit for several months last year, and they’ll serve as testbeds for the technology that Planetary Resources plans to use on the larger Arkyd 100. The first Arkyd 6 is scheduled to go into orbit as a secondary payload on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket later this year, with a logistical assist from Seattle-based Spaceflight Industries.
Arkyd 6 will observe Earth in just one midwave-infrared band, but Arkyd 100 will also gather data in 40 color bands, ranging from visible light to near-infrared.
Other satellite companies, such as Digital Globe and Planet Labs, are already providing commercial imagery in a range of wavelengths, but Lewicki said the combination of low cost, frequent overpasses and hyperspectral capability will put Ceres in a sweet spot for Earth imaging.
“In some ways, we’re not doing anything new. We’re just doing it in new ways,” Lewicki said.
The Arkyd 100 represents an early step in Planetary Resources’ plan to scan the skies for water-rich asteroids. The company is developing a propulsion system for a larger class of space telescopes called the Arkyd 200. And 10 years from now, even more powerful Arkyd 300 spacecraft could be zooming out to take a close look at asteroidal mother lodes.
Will Planetary Resources actually do the mining, or will the company end up pointing other companies to the space resources for a price?
“We don’t know how this industry is going to go,” Lewicki said. “Both are options.”
Many of the details surrounding Planetary Resources’ long-term business model have yet to be set. But Lewicki said the added investment for Ceres should smooth the company’s transition from the short term to the long term. Lewicki said he’s already talking with potential customers for Ceres’ services.
“We see this as a way actually to become permanently profitable,” he said. “The ‘runway’ is often a topic of conversation among entrepreneurs and investors. The best type of runway is runway that is infinite. This is a business opportunity that we see to be able to easily provide that … but also to continue to move toward our ultimate goal: expanding the economy into space.”