Planetary Resources holds G+ hangout to celebrate first birthday

Calling the 12 months since they went public with their asteroid-mining mission an epic journey, Planetary Resources, Inc. held a a live Google+ hangout from its intergalactic headquarters in Bellevue, Washington today to celebrate its birthday and talk about what’s on the horizon.

President and chief asteroid miner Chris Lewicki spelled out an ambitious plan that includes having the company’s Arkyd 100 telescopes in orbit by 2015 and playing a key role in NASA’s efforts to retrieve an asteroid and bring it into the Earth-Moon system.

Arkyd 100

Planetary Resources plans to have a “constellation” of its Arkyd 100 telescopes in low-Earth orbit and at work spotting asteroids by 2015. They’ll launch smaller cubesats to test the 100’s avionics next year. Photo: Planetary Resources.

“There’s going to be a lot of story to share,” Lewicki said of the next few years.

They actually hope to have hardware in space a year from now. Planetary Resources is working on the “A3”, a small vehicle that is essentially three CubeSats. The A3 will allow them to try out the avionics that will be used with the larger Arkyd 100.

“The best test bed is space itself,” said Chris Voorhees, company VP and spaceship wrangler. Voorhees added that asteroid mining will be a decades-long effort that will require lots of small steps.

“It’s one of those big leaps that mankind has ahead of it,” he said. “For us, on a day-to-day basis, we need to take that into bite-size chunks that we can work and realize, from one step to the next, an incremental process where the successes, sometimes failures, certainly the lessons learned from each step in the process helps educate what we do next.”

Voorhees noted that there is a lot of education needed.

“The biggest challenge that we have with asteroid mining is ignorance; we know precious little about the ore bodies that we have out there,” he said.

“We know enough that it’s tantalizing,” Lewicki added. “The opportunity is out there.”

“We’re an information company before we’re a mining company,” Voorhees concluded.

The Arkyd 100 will be a key part of that information gathering. Getting the telescopes into space will allow Planetary Resources to give the technology a real test, and to begin the work of finding asteroids and figuring out which ones have the best potential for mining.

Interestingly, a primary target of the company’s mining efforts will be water. It’s the essence of life, but perhaps more importantly, it can provide protection from radiation in space and the hydrogen contained can be used as a propellent. It’s expensive to launch into space but may well be cheaper to mine out there.

“Water is going to be the molecule that really unlocks the solar system for humans to expand off the Earth and get into space permanently,” Lewicki said. “Water is the gateway drug of space; it’s the enabler!”

Planetary Resources recently announced a partnership with Bechtel, and Lewicki said it’s exciting to have that company on board.

“When a large mining company calls and wants a mine built, Bechtel helps them get that done,” he said. “We have a partnership with them for the future of space and look forward to working with them.”

Similarly, Planetary Resources is looking forward to working with NASA on the asteroid retrieval project.

“It’s going to be challenging, it’s going to be awesome,” Lewicki said of the project. “If this does get approved in the budget it’s certainly something that we think we can probably contribute to a lot in terms of how NASA does that mission. A lot of our technologies can probably help to buy down NASA’s risk.”

Lewicki said they appreciate working with the space agency because they owe it a lot.

“It’s not without the last 50 years of space exploration that a company like ours would even be able to exist,” he said. “We’re standing on the shoulders of a great investment by not only our country but other countries.”

You can read Seattle Astronomy’s coverage of last year’s rollout of Planetary Resources here. Full video of today’s hangout is below.