Exploration Labs' render of Arachne, a spacecraft designed for large debris capture. ExLabs' Autonomous Capture & Acquisition Robot and Space Exploration Research Vehicle are combined in Arachne. Credit: ExLabs

Exploration Laboratories, a startup focused on space resources, will accelerate work on technology to autonomously capture space objects, thanks to a $1.9 million Tactical Funding Increase (TACFI) from SpaceWERX.

Southern California-based ExLabs announced a $1.7 million SpaceWERX Small Business Innovation Research contract in 2023 for autonomous capture and acquisition technology. The additional $1.9 million, split between government and private investors, “facilitates our transition to prototype development and testing of the ACQR platform, paving the way for its orbital test flight,” Matthew Schmidgall, ExLabs CEO and co-founder, told SpaceNews by email.

ACQR is ExLab’s autonomous capture and acquisition robot. ExLabs also is developing Space Exploration and Resource Vehicle, or SERV, a spacecraft designed to host payloads of 30 metric tons in its fully stacked configuration. 

When SERV and ACQR are combined, they “will be capable of capture and control of large objects in space,” Schmidgall said. “The long-term goal for ExLabs is to provide the world’s largest operational spacecraft to support asteroid retrieval missions for in-situ resource utilization in cis-lunar space. In addition to payload hosting, transportation and delivery, the SERV spacecraft will serve as a large-scale power utility.”

Apophis Mission

On the civil space, ExLabs is planning to rendezvous with the asteroid Apophis in 2028 before it reaches Earth.

During the mission, ExLabs intends to deposit three cubesats in Apophos’ orbit. The flight also is designed to validate systems and software for future campaigns to capture and move near-Earth asteroids into stable orbits for resource acquisition.

ExLabs was founded in 2023 by Schmidgall, former Rocket Motorsports managing partner, and Miguel Pascual, a former Boeing senior systems engineer. ExLabs personnel include Tom Cooley, former Air Force Research Laboratory Space Systems chief scientist, Dalibor Djuran, former E-Space chief engineer and Keiko Nakamura, who, spent nearly 20 years at NASA and served as co-investigator on asteroid missions including Hayabusa2 and OSIRIS-Rex.

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...