Planetary Resources Adds Corporate Investor, Seeks Grant

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WALLOPS ISLAND, Va. — Planetary Resources, a Seattle-based company working on asteroid-mining spacecraft, said it landed a new financial backer: construction and engineering services giant Bechtel Corp.

The value of Bechtel’s contribution to the fledgling extraterrestrial mining company — which is easing into the market by developing small, cheap space telescopes designed to be the basis of future mining craft — was not disclosed in an April 16 joint press release.

Chris Lewicki, president of Planetary Resources, likewise declined to comment about Bechtel’s investment.

“We don’t talk about the internal financial details,” Lewicki said in a phone interview. “From a financial standpoint, we’ve got enough operating capital to do all the near-term stuff we’ve got to do, and things are going well.”

Planetary Resources eventually wants to send swarms of prospecting and mining spacecraft to extract water and precious metals from asteroids that require no more fuel to reach from Earth than the Moon.

Until then, the company is working on a prototype spacecraft called the Arkyd-100 series, the intended basis of future resource harvesting models.

Nearly a year after Planetary Resources founding, Lewicki was coy about whether the company had booked any orders for the Arkyd-100.

He said the company would “talk with more specificity about what we’re doing” during a 30-minute Google+ hangout scheduled for April 24 — the anniversary of Planetary Resources’ public unveiling.

“We’ve got a few more updates that we’re going to share then, in terms of some technical details, as well as some other updates,” Lewicki said.

The Arkyd-100 will weigh about 11 kilograms, meaning that it has shrunk since Lewicki described it at the company’s first press conference last April at the Seattle Museum of Flight. He said then the Arkyd-100 would weigh 30 kilograms to 50 kilograms.

The first projected launch of an Arkyd-100 — it could fly as a secondary payload, Lewicki said — has also changed. Last year, Planetary Resources thought one of its proto-miners could be flying by 2014. On April 16, Lewicki said 2015 was more likely.

Meanwhile, the key to Planetary Resources scaled-down spacecraft design, an all-in-one optics package that combines communication, positioning and observation capabilities, still does not exist.

However, Planetary Resources is evaluating whether a $2.5 million optics package that has already combined imaging and positioning functions might fit the bill. The company in 2011 got a $125,000 grant from NASA’s Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) program to study the feasibility of adding laser-based communications to this optical array, which was built by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Draper Laboratory, both of Cambridge, Mass.

That grant expired in February, but Planetary Resources is now seeking follow-on STTR funding that would bring the company’s total award under the program up to about $700,000. Lewicki said he expects news about the STTR award in May.

The multifunction optics package would first be used on the planned Arkyd-200 and Arkyd-300 spacecraft, which are the asteroid prospecting and mining varieties.

Meanwhile, Lewicki said that early versions of the pathfinder Arkyd-100, which is currently in the mechanical prototype phase at Planetary Resources’ factory near Seattle, might not even fly with a propulsion system.

“We have an option for including a small amount of reaction control and proximity propulsion on that platform,” Lewicki said. “And that is something that we’re looking through the summer to see if we can keep on track for that launch date.”

Planetary Resources was founded by Peter Diamandis, chairman of the X Prize Foundation, and Eric Anderson, chief executive of Vienna, Va.-based Space Adventures, which has booked trips to the international space station for millionaire tourists.

At its unveiling nearly a year ago, Planetary Resources trumpeted its roster of billionaire investors, including Google Chief Executive Larry Page and Ross Perot Jr., chairman of the Perot Group holding company and its Hillwood real estate development company. Two-time space station visitor and former Microsoft executive Charles Simonyi is also a contributor, as is Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt.

Planetary Resources started out in 2010 as Arkyd Astronautics. Anderson and Diamandis were involved from the beginning.