It’s been months since Planetary Resources had to scale back its asteroid aspirations because a fundraising campaign came up short — and the quest for cash is continuing as space industry leaders converge on the Seattle area this week for the Space Frontier Foundation’s annual NewSpace conference.
So how long will the quest continue?
“I don’t think there’s a definitive answer to that,” Chris Lewicki, the Redmond, Wash.-based venture’s CEO, president and chief asteroid miner, told GeekWire today.
But Lewicki said Planetary Resources, which has raised more than $50 million in investments and successfully sent two satellites into orbit over the course of six years, isn’t swerving from its goal of mining near-Earth asteroids to build a trillion-dollar industry.
“When you’re in a zero-to-one business like space mining, you try a lot of different things,” he said. “Some of them work out, some of them don’t. But if you don’t take a risk, you don’t have the opportunity for a reward.”
Planetary Resources made a splashy public debut back in 2012, with high-profile backing from billionaires including Google executives Larry Page and Eric Schmidt as well as Microsoft pioneer Charles Simonyi.
For a time, the company shifted its focus to Earth observation, but Lewicki said he and his teammates “made a risky and aggressive choice to double down on asteroid exploration” last year.
They were emboldened by a number of positive developments, including a close partnership with Luxembourg’s government and business leaders. They also identified a number of new investors, including a mining company that was in line to lead a fresh funding round.
Unfortunately, the round failed to come together, and “we didn’t have the funding coming in to support continued technological development,” Lewicki said.
That forced a sharp reduction in Planetary Resources’ workforce. How sharp? Lewicki declined to say, but LinkedIn’s listings show that a number of employees have moved on to Blue Origin, Amazon and other companies.
Several former members of the team have started up a new engineering services company called Synchronous.
Maggie Scholtz, a Planetary Resources veteran who is now Synchronous’ president of aerospace and space, will be one of the speakers at the NewSpace conference. The event gets under way on Tuesday at the Hyatt Regency Lake Washington in Renton, Wash.
Other Synchronous partners include Chris Voorhees, who was Planetary Resources’ chief engineer until February; Peter Illsley, Planetary Resources’ former director of mechanical and thermal engineering; Brian Geddes, former director of software; and Rhae Adams, former director of mining and energy.
Planetary Resources had to let a robotic worker go as well. Arkyd-6A, the experimental Earth-observing satellite that was launched for the company in January, is now idle in low Earth orbit.
Arkyd-6A’s demonstration mission was declared complete in April, and Lewicki said all the test objectives were successfully met. At least one image has been released, showing how Arkyd-6A’s midwave infrared camera could identify an Algerian oil refinery’s hot spots in a desert landscape.
When Planetary Resources acknowledged its funding shortfall in February, spokeswoman Stacey Tearne said the company would focus on near-term revenue streams “by maximizing the opportunity of having a spacecraft in orbit.”
However, Lewicki said that hasn’t worked out. “Having not found a scalable commercial customer, we have not continued to operate the satellite,” he said.
A twin to Arkyd-6A, known as Arkyd-6B, is still sitting at Planetary Resources’ Redmond headquarters and may be repurposed for a different mission, Lewicki said. But he said there’s no need to repeat Arkyd-6A’s mission, thanks to the lessons learned to date.
“As with all things, it’d be nice to have a bigger camera,” Lewicki said.
Assuming that funding is found, the next step in Planetary Resources’ timeline is to develop a more advanced asteroid-prospecting satellite known as the Arkyd-301. Such satellites could identify and potentially sample water that could be turned into rocket fuel for in-space refueling, And it could conceivably find other materials that have high value back on Earth.
“These are still long-term timelines, and funding these things is always challenging,” Lewicki acknowledged.
Another asteroid mining company, California-based Deep Space Industries, has found the long-term goal challenging as well. To make ends meet in the meantime, DSI is marketing its underlying technologies, such as the water-based thruster system it will provide for Seattle-based BlackSky’s Earth-observing satellites.
“It’s the green equivalent of selling internal combustion engines while we’re prospecting for oil,” Rick Tumlinson, one of DSI’s founders, told GeekWire.
In April, DSI reported raising $3.5 million from private investors to fund the development of its Meteor rocket engine and Xplorer spacecraft.
No business venture is immune from failure, as illustrated by the case of Planetary Power, a corporate cousin of Planetary Resources.
Planetary Power had amassed more than $10 million in funding over its 10-year lifetime to support plans to market a “generator on wheels” for construction sites, mining operations and other commercial applications. But the venture quietly closed up shop last year.
“We were unable to gain enough customer traction in the highly competitive power generation market,” Joe Landon, who was Planetary Power’s CEO, told GeekWire in an email. Landon is also Planetary Resources’ chief financial officer as well as board chairman of Space Angels.
Landon, Lewicki and their colleagues can take heart from the fact that the commercial space market is worlds apart from the power generation market. There’s heightened interest in spaceflight, thanks in part to the Trump administration’s strong push to send astronauts to the moon and beyond.
Somebody’s got to provide the resources to support those space ambitions, and Lewicki is betting that Planetary Resources will get a piece of the action.
“The environment has never been better than it is today,” Lewicki said.
Landon will be among the presenters at the Space Frontier Foundation’s NewSpace 2018 conference, which runs from Tuesday through Thursday at the Hyatt Regency Lake Washington in Renton. Stay tuned for GeekWire’s reports from the NewSpace frontier.