Planetary Resources Seeks NASA Funds for Optical Technology

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WASHINGTON — Planetary Resources, the billionaire-backed Seattle startup planning to mine asteroids for water and precious metals, is seeking $700,000 from NASA to build a prototype of the multipurpose optics package at the heart of the company’s spacecraft designs.

Planetary Resources is designing all but the earliest iterations of its prospecting spacecraft around a three-in-one optical instrument that captures images, performs the positioning duties of a star tracker and provides laser-based communications at a rate of “kilobits-per-second,” said Chris Lewicki, a former NASA engineer who is now president and chief engineer of Planetary Resources.

No such instrument exists today, but a $2.5 million optics package built by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Draper Laboratory of Cambridge, Mass., for the proposed ExoPlanetcubesat mission, has already combined imaging and positioning functions. This instrument, which has yet to fly in space, is optimized to detect the telltale flicker of small planets transiting distant stars. If it can be made more resistant to the jostling of the spacecraft on which it rides, it might also be able to handle optical communications, Lewicki said in a May 15 telephone interview.

“They’re stabilizing incoming light from a distant star,” Lewicki said of the MIT/Draper instrument. “With optical communications, you also have to stabilize and fine-point an outgoing signal.” To do that, Lewicki estimated the existing instrument would have to become 10 times more stable than it is now. That could be done by placing it on a larger spacecraft than it was originally designed for, or by augmenting the existing design with additional components such as gyroscopes and accelerometers, he said.

Planetary Resources got a $125,000 Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) award from NASA in 2011 to study the feasibility of adding laser communications to the MIT/Draper design. The feasibility study runs until February, but Lewicki already believes the feat is manageable and said that Planetary Resources will seek follow-on STTR funding next year.

“We would be using that to develop a hardware demonstrator that would take this concept into the bench top and brass board world,” Lewicki said.

Follow-on STTR funding would be capped at $700,000 and support a two-year development effort, said NASA spokesman David Steitz. Awards for NASA’s three-phase STTR program typically do not exceed $1 million, he said.

Lewicki, during Planetary Resources’ April 24 unveiling, said the company will probably spend tens millions of dollars to develop its first spacecraft and later try to drive the price per spacecraft down into the “single-digit millions.”

Although these later Planetary Resources spacecraft may reap the benefit of the three-in-one optics package the company is trying to build, its first-generation spacecraft, known as the Arkyd 100 series, will not.

The Arkyd 100 series will be a steppingstone for Planetary Resources. These 30- to 50-kilogram space telescopes will have no propulsion system, communicate over radio frequencies and begin launching in late 2013 or early 2014, Lewicki said. Most will share a ride to low Earth orbit as secondary payloads on commercial satellite launches.

Lewicki said Planetary Resources might test early elements of the multipurpose optics package on one of the first Arkyd 100 launches, but that such a technology demonstration is not an overriding priority.

“There’s a saying I remember from back when I was at NASA: ‘If it ain’t required, it ain’t required,’” said Lewicki.

Planetary Resources will use Arkyd 100 series telescopes to search for asteroids it could later mine. However, the company also plans to sell the 100 series, which it says can be tailored  for Earth observation or star gazing, and plans to put any proceeds towards development work on future spacecraft.

If the three-in-one optics device works as intended, it will allow future Planetary Resources spacecraft to fly without the large antennas required for radio frequency communications. It will also allow the craft to be built without dedicated star tracker  cameras that many satellites use for positioning adjustments.

Planetary Resources estimates that this optics package will be ready for routine use in 2017, when the Arkyd 300 series is slated make its first prospecting missions to near-Earth asteroids. Swarms of the craft will scan these asteroids for water, the first resource Planetary Resources hopes to harvest in space. Water can be distilled into hydrogen and oxygen and stored in space as rocket fuel, or bottled for later consumption by humans passing by on future deep-space exploration missions, the company says.

Planetary Resources’ investors include Google Chief Executive Larry Page, former Microsoft executive Charles Simonyi and Ross Perot Jr., chairman of the Perot Group Holding Co., The company has just over 20 full-time employees and plans to hire about six more this summer, Lewicki said.

ExoplanetSat principal investigator Sara Seager, an MIT planetary scientist advising Planetary Resources, said that company’s plan to sell cheap satellites is already generating interest within the astronomy community.

“Some of my colleagues in astronomy are really, really excited about the idea of having a telescope available just for a few million dollars, whether or not it has the capability Draper and MIT are working on,” Seager said. “So the fact that [Planetary Resources] already has generated an interest in professionals who actually might be able to get money and have access to their product, that’s a promising sign.”

SéamusTuohy, director of space systems at Draper Laboratory, said in late April that construction of a flight-ready ExoplanetSat optics package is about halfway complete and should be ready to be tested in space in about a year.

MIT and Draper have even lined up a ride to orbit. In February, NASA slotted the ExoplanetSat optics package — and 32 other tiny satellites — to ride as auxiliary payloads on launches scheduled for 2013 and 2014. The arrangement is part of the agency’s Educational Launch of Nanosatellite program.