Asteroid-mining Company’s 1st Spacecraft Deploys

by

WASHINGTON — The International Space Station deployed a three-unit cubesat from its satellite dispenser for a 90-day mission meant help an aspiring asteroid-mining company make progress toward its long-term goal of extracting resources from space rocks.

Planetary Resources of Redmond, Washington, said in a July 16 press release that its Arkyd 3 Reflight (A3R) spacecraft — its first orbiting spacecraft — is designed to test avionics, control systems and software for future spacecraft that will be launched into the solar system to “prospect” for mineral-rich asteroids.

Video showing A3R’s (the longer cubesat) deployment. Credit: NASA

SpaceX’s Dragon cargo tug delivered A3R to the ISS during an April resupply run. The cubesat is a reflight of one that was lost when Orbital ATK’s Antares rocket exploded while launching a supply-laden Cygnus cargo tug to the station in October.

While Planetary Resources is funded in part by wealthy benefactors including Google executives Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, the private company has also asked for public support. In July 2013, Planetary Resources crowdfunded $1.5 million with a Kickstarter campaign.

Planetary Resources enticed supporters by offering the opportunity to send “selfies” to a future Arkyd series satellite. The backers’ images would be displayed on a screen and photographed again, this time with Earth as a backdrop.

A3R was one of more than a dozen cubesats deploying the week of July 13 from the NanoRacks satellite dispenser aboard ISS. Houston-based NanoRacks is launching a total of 14 cubesats for San Francisco-based Planet Labs and one cubesat for the management consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton of McLean, Virginia. Planet Labs’ Dove satellites provide Earth-imaging capabilities. Booz Allen’s Centennial-1, a single-unit cubesat, will track a laser that the U.S. Air Force uses to calibrate its ground-based telescopes in New Mexico.

The next Planetary Resources satellite, Arkyd-6, is scheduled to launch later this year. Twice as big as A3R, the six-unit Arkyd-6 cubesat will build upon its predecessor’s work by testing attitude control, power and communication systems. Spokeswoman Stacey Tearne said in an email to SpaceNews that Arkyd-6 will also perform engineering tests of the selfie system.

Tearne did not say when people would be able to send selfies, but Planetary Resources had said in 2013 that Kickstarter backers will be able to send their selfies to the Arkyd space telescope. The telescope, which will serve as a prototype spacecraft for later asteroid-prospecting vehicles, does not have a launch date yet.