When I first wrote about Planetary Resources early last year I was erring on the side of cautious optimism because back then there wasn’t a whole lot of information available regarding how they were actually going to achieve their goal. Indeed even their first goal of building and launching multiple space telescopes sounded like it was beyond the capabilities of even veteran players in this industry. Still the investors backing them weren’t the type to be taken for a ride so I figured they were worth keeping an eye on to see how they progressed towards their goal.
And boy have they ever:
The above video shows off one of their prototypes of the Arkyd-100 space based telescope. Now back when Planetary Resources first started talking about what they were going to do I wasn’t expecting something of this size. Indeed I don’t believe anyone has attempted to make a space based telescope that small before as you’re usually trying to amp up your light gathering potential with a large mirror. Still despite the relatively small mirror size they should be quite capable of doing the required imagery that will lead them to potential mineable asteroids.
Their communications set up is also highly intriguing as traditional space communications require large dishes and costly receiving equipment back here on earth. Planetary Resources are instead looking to use lasers for their deep space communications an idea that I didn’t think would be possible. A quick bit of research turns up this document from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab which goes into some detail about their feasibility and shockingly it appears to only be an engineering challenge at this point. How long it will take to turn it into something usable remains to be seen but considering Planetary Resources are looking to launch within the next couple years I’d hazard a guess that they’re already pretty close to getting it working.
Looking at all this you’d think I’d be ashamed of my initial scepticism but I’m not, I love it when people prove me wrong like this. Indeed the work that Planetary Resources are doing closely resembles that of the early days of SpaceX, a company which has gone on to achieve things that no other private company has done before. Given enough time it’s looking like Planetary Resources will be able to do the same and that gets me all kinds of excited.
I’ve long heard tales of how profitable asteroid mining could be. This is because asteroids, unlike Earth, tend to have higher concentrations of rare minerals with some even being almost entirely metallic, in essence taking out all the hard work of digging it up out of the ground. However actually mining asteroids or other heavenly bodies is a devastatingly expensive exercise as you have to haul all your equipment up there, conduct the mining operation, and then safely get the minerals back to Earth. Nothing along the way is trivial and whilst there’s been a great number of advancements making the trip there and back easier no one has yet tried to tackle the problem of mining in space.
However news has started circulating of a new company that’s setting its sights on just such a lofty goal and its name is Planetary Resources.
Now any company with such a lofty goal would attract some attention from the press but Planetary Resources is doing so for additional reasons: the people who are backing this project. We can count amongst them people like Tom Jones (a former NASA astronaut), Larry Page and Eric Schmidt (Google co-founders) and none other than James Cameron himself. The list seems to go on and it’s clear that this company must have some concrete plans to actually achieve their vision in order to attract such talent and some of those plans have just come to light.
Planetary Resources has already done some of the groundwork required in order for their business model to work. They’ve set their sites initially on Near Earth Asteroids of which there are about 8,840 known (although more are discovered every year). Of those known objects approximately 150 of them are thought to be water rich and require less energy to reach than going to the moon. They are then going to launch a high powered space telescoped designed to prospect these asteroids from afar within the next 2 years. It is likely that they will attempt to find the largest of these asteroids that are close enough together, allowing one launch to reach multiple asteroids.
Part of Planetary Resources goal is to make accessing such asteroids cheaper and this will be accomplished by establishing orbital refuelling stations on the way to those near earth objects. I’ve written in the past how these kinds of stations are required if we want to be serious about exploring and establishing a human presence beyond that of our current planet and it thrills me to see a company making this idea a reality. Such stations will not only make their activities much more economically feasible it will also allow agencies like NASA to be far more ambitious with their future projects, something which they’ve been lacking of late.
Details beyond that however are somewhat scant. Planetary Resources has declined to say when they’ll be breaking ground on an asteroid so the only solid timeline we have from them is that they’ll launch a telescope in under 2 years. Whilst there’s been some research showing that a mission could potentially be done by 2025 that was entirely theoretical and put the cost somewhere north of $2 billion. Now that’s not out of reach of Planetary Resources, several of their backers have fortunes that amount to several times that, but there’s no indication that they’ll be able to meet that schedule. I’m hopeful that they’ll be able to reach their goal eventually but until we start to see some real progress from them it’s best to not speculate too heavily.
Regardless of my apparent scepticism I’m still very excited by this announcement. We’re starting to see the combined efforts of many disparate companies beginning to create a snowball effect, one that’s creating a flourishing private space industry that was only recently a science fiction fantasy. We are so incredibly lucky to be living in a time that’s akin to the aviation revolution of the last century. I’m a fervent believer that within our lifetimes we’ll see commodity level space travel and I cannot wait to be a passenger.