Last week, the first in a line of spacecraft designed to test technologies needed to eventually mine asteroids launched from the International Space Station.
TheArkyd 3 Reflight (A3R) spacecraft, created by Redmond, Wash., asteroid-mining firm Planetary Resources, aims to test critical electronic systems and software during its 90-day mission. The demonstrator craft deployed from the space station’s Kibo airlock on 16 July, having arrived at the ISS thanks to a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched in April.
“Our team is developing the technology that will enable humanity to create an off-planet economy that will fundamentally change the way we live on Earth,” said Peter Diamandis, co-founder and co-chairman of Planetary Resources, Inc., in a press release.
The asteroid-mining firm formed in 2012 with the purpose of figuring out an economical way to mine platinum, palladium, or rare earth materials from near-Earth asteroids. Prominent billionaire backers include Hollywood director James Cameron and Google executives Larry Page and Eric Schmidt. But the exact mineral wealth of the asteroids most easily accessible from Earth remains unknown. Indeed, a Harvard University study found just 10 nearby asteroids worth mining.
Planetary Resources’ next demonstrator, called the Arkyd-6 (A6), is scheduled to test the “next generation of attitude control, power, communication, and avionics systems” along with sensors that can analyze asteroids for the resources they contain. Such sensors include a mid-wave infrared imaging system capable of measuring temperature differences on observed objects and obtaining data on the presence of water or water-rich minerals. The A6 is scheduled to launch sometime later this year.
Planetary Resources says it wants to pursue a “test often” philosophy in building the A3R and successive generations of spacecraft. “We are innovating on every level from design to launch,” said Chris Lewicki, president and chief engineer of Planetary Resources, Inc, in a statement. “By vertically integrating the system at our facility in Redmond, we are in constant control of every component, including the ones we purchase off the shelf and the others that we manufacture using 3-D printers.”
Jeremy Hsu has been working as a science and technology journalist in New York City since 2008. He has written on subjects as diverse as supercomputing and wearable electronics for IEEE Spectrum. When he’s not trying to wrap his head around the latest quantum computing news for Spectrum, he also contributes to a variety of publications such as Scientific American, Discover, Popular Science, and others. He is a graduate of New York University’s Science, Health & Environmental Reporting Program.