Asteroid Mining Venture To Start with Small, Cheap Space Telescopes

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WASHINGTON — Planetary Resources, a billionaire-backed company that aims to mine asteroids for water and precious metals, says it will set the stage for this ambitious endeavor by building and launching a series of small, low-cost space telescopes, the first of which it intends to launch in 18-24 months.

The space telescope will be based on the same design Planetary Resources will eventually use for its asteroid-prospecting spacecraft: a 30- to 50-kilogram satellite fitted with a multipurpose optics payload and laser communications system the company is developing to avoid encumbering its spacecraft with large antennas.

The company, which says it has about two dozen employees, will market these spacecraft as cheap but effective telescopes for both astronomical and Earth-observing applications. Sales would provide cash for the company’s core work on asteroid prospecting and mining, Eric Anderson, co-founder and co-chairman of Planetary Resources, said.

“As a byproduct of developing [spacecraft] for asteroid prospecting, we actually have the platform for a very high-performance, low-cost space telescope or observation platform,” Anderson said. “We’re now talking to a number of customers who would love to buy one of these, or a small constellation of these, for observing the Earth, or for doing science and observing for astronomical purposes.”

Anderson would not identify the customers Planetary Resources is courting, but suggested low-cost space-based Earth imagery and remote sensing might appeal to the likes of Google, Microsoft Corp. and FedEx Corp.

The cornerstone of the company’s Arkyd-1 multipurpose space telescope is a novel optics package that Chris Lewicki, the company’s president and chief engineer, characterized as a “Swiss Army knife” that would leverage its optical technology for tasks besides capturing images.

“We need a big lens in space and our entire spacecraft is designed around pointing that big lens at things we’re going to look at,” Lewicki said at an April 24 press conference in Seattle to unveil Planetary Resources. “And because we’ve invested so much in that big lens, we want to use it for more than one thing. I want something that I can communicate with, something that I can point with and something that I can take amazing asteroid data with.”

Although they did not mention it during the press conference, Planetary Resources is getting some help from NASA with its key technology.

NASA in 2011 gave Planetary Resources’ predecessor company, Arkyd Astronautics, a $125,000 Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) award “to determine the feasibility of developing a multi-functional optical subsystem used for attitude determination, stability control, scientific observation and high-precision optical communications on small satellites,” according to Lewicki’s proposal summary, posted on the NASA STTR website.

Planetary Resources plans to deploy multipurpose telescopes like Arkyd-1 to scan the heavens for the type of asteroids the company most wants to exploit: water- and platinum-rich bodies that require less propellant to reach than the surface of the Moon. Still further on, no sooner than three or four years, Anderson said, the same basic design could be adapted for prospecting sorties to the asteroids themselves. Subsequent iterations of the craft would be fitted with resource extraction tools for mining work.

The company is particularly interested in platinum-group metals used in consumer electronics and various industrial applications. Space water could be refined into hydrogen and oxygen, elements commonly used as rocket fuel. Anderson said that could enable a network of in-space propellant depots, perhaps at a lower price than the $100,000 a kilogram he says it would cost to stock depots with fuels produced from water hauled from Earth.

Anderson, the chief executive of Vienna, Va.-based Space Adventures, shares top-level responsibility for Planetary Resources with co-founder and co-chairman Peter Diamandis, chairman of the X Prize Foundation.

Planetary Resources is headquartered in Seattle but has a factory in Bellevue, Wash., with about 1,115 square meters of floor space and a Class 10,000 clean room, Anderson said.

Planetary Resources is privately financed and counts among its backers Larry Page, chief executive of Google Inc., and Ross Perot Jr., chairman of the Perot Group holding company and of Hillwood, that group’s real estate development company. Other investors include Eric Schmidt and Charles Simonyi, the former Microsoft executive who has visited the international space station twice on Soyuz flights booked through Space Adventures.

Anderson would not say how much money Planetary Resources has raised from its core of deep-pocketed investors, but said the company had “plenty of money” and is already cash-flow positive thanks to research-and-development-type contracts with unnamed customers.

Anderson said Planetary Resources began operations in 2010 but deliberately kept a low profile.

“We were operating under the name of Arkyd Astronautics for the last two years quite honestly because it was not as obvious what we were up to,” Anderson told Space News. “If we had been called ‘Planetary Resources,’ it would have been obvious to people.”

Anderson said Planetary Resources decided to go public in large part because it is looking to hire.

The company’s objectives also align with NASA’s current human spaceflight goals, which include manned asteroid missions and other deep-space expeditions that would make use of propellant depots and other such space-based infrastructure.

Planetary Resources, however, says it plans to remain focused strictly on robotic exploration.

Clark Chapman, a University of Colorado planetary scientist not affiliated with Planetary Resources, said that while mining an asteroid in space could be tricky — some of these so-called small bodies are little more than floating clusters of rubble — spotting the right targets is easy enough.

“Depending on what kind of material they’re looking for, it won’t be difficult to determine what target to go for,” Chapman said in a phone interview.

 Ground-based telescopes, for example, can observe asteroids from afar using filters that essentially “dial out the spectrum of [light from] the sun,” Chapman said. This method allows scientists to determine the color of some of the rocks and minerals they are observing. Metallic asteroids, which are not easily identified this way, can be detected by radar scans, Chapman said.

Meteorites recovered on Earth also provide scientists with clues about asteroid composition, Chapman said.

Although there is no sure way to scan the heavens for a precious metal such as platinum, the mineral Planetary Resources says it is most eager to find, it is relatively simple to scan for other materials that often exist in tandem with this terrestrially scarce resource, Chapman said.

“Very good inferences can be made about which asteroids these rare earth metals are on,” Chapman said. “There’s a word, siderophile, that means ‘iron loving.’ Platinum is one of these metals that goes where the iron goes.”

Iron-bearing asteroids are classed by scientists as silicaceous, or S-type, asteroids. Meteorite fragments of these discovered on Earth are known as ordinary chondrites, Chapman said, and they are among the most common meteorites on the planet.

Chapman said that many of the near-Earth asteroids from which ordinary chondrites come might take a few months to reach. A round trip — at least for a small spacecraft not laden with prospected ore — might take about a year, Chapman said.