Asteroid Mining is Getting Closer to Reality. Planetary Resources Arkyd-6 Satellite Just Launched

In 2009, Arkyd Aeronautics was formed with the intention of becoming the first commercial deep-space exploration program. In 2012, the company was renamed Planetary Resources, and began exploring the ambitious idea of asteroid prospecting and mining. By harnessing Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) for their water and minerals, the company hopes to substantially reduce the costs of space exploration.

A key step in this vision is the deployment of the Arkyd 6, a CubeSat that will begin testing key technologies that will go into asteroid prospecting. Last week (on Friday, January 12th), the Arkyd-6 was one of 31 satellites that were launched into orbit aboard an Indian-built PSLV rocket. The CubeSat has since been deployed into orbit and is already delivering telemetry data to its team of operators on the ground.

The launch was not only a milestone for the asteroid prospecting company, but for commercial aerospace in general. For the purposes of creating the Arkyd 6, the company modified commercial-available technology to be used in space. This includes the mid-wave infrared (MWIR) sensor the spacecraft will use to detect water on Earth, as well as its avionics, power systems, communications, attitude determination and control systems.

The Arkyd-6 deploying from the PSLV rocket that carried it into orbit. Credit: ISRO

This process is central to the new era of commercial aerospace, where the ability to adapt readily-available technology will allow companies to have control over every stage of the development process, as well as significantly reducing costs. As Chris Lewicki, the President and CEO Planetary Resources, said in a recent company statement:

“The success of the Arykd-6 will validate and inform the design and engineering philosophies we have embraced since the beginning of this innovative project. We will continue to employ these methods through the development of the Arkyd-301 and beyond as we progress toward our Space Resource Exploration Mission.”

The company hopes to mount the Space Resource Exploration Mission by 2020, which will involve multiple spacecraft being deployed as part of a single rocket launch. These will be carried beyond Earth’s orbit and will use low-thrust ion propulsion systems to travel to asteroids that have been prospected by Arkyd-301. Once there, they will collect data and collect samples for analysis.

During the course of the Arkyd-6’s flight, 17 elements will be tested in total, the most important of which is the MWIR imager. This instrument will be the first commercial infrared imager to be used in space and relies on custom optics to collect pixel-level data. With this high-level of precision, the imager will conduct hydration studies of Earth to determine how effective the instrument is at sniffing out sources of water on other bodies.

Planetary Resources onfographic, showing the process of asteroid prospecting. Credit: Planetary Resources

Based on the findings from this initial flight, the company plans to further develop the sensor technology, which will be incorporated into their next mission – the Arkyd-301. This spacecraft will be the first step in Planetary Resources plan to make asteroid mining a reality. Using the same technology as the Arkyd-6 (with some refinements), the spacecraft will be responsible for identifying sources of water on Near-Earth Asteroids.

These asteroids will be the target of future missions, where commercial spacecraft attempt to rendezvous and mine them for water ice. As Chris Voorhees, the Chief Engineer at Planetary Resources, said:

“If all of the experimental systems operate successfully, Planetary Resources intends to use the Arkyd-6 satellite to capture MWIR images of targets on Earth’s surface, including agricultural land, resource exploration regions, and infrastructure for mining and energy. In addition, we will also have the opportunity to perform specific celestial observations from our vantage point in low Earth orbit. Lessons learned from Arkyd-6 will inform the company’s approach as it builds on this technology to enable the scientific and economic evaluation of asteroids during its future Space Resource Exploration Mission.”

All told, there are over 1600 asteroids in Near-Earth space. According to Planetary Resources own estimates, these contain a total of 2 trillion metric tons (2.2 US tons) of water, which can be used for the sake of life support and manufacturing fuel for space missions. By tapping this abundant off-world resource, they estimate that the associated costs of mounting missions to space can be reduced by 95%.

Much like SpaceX’s ongoing development of reusable rockets and attempts to create reusable space planes (such as the Dream Chaser and the Sabre Engine), the goal here is to make space exploration not only affordable, but lucrative. Once that is achieved, the size and shape of space exploration will be limited only by our imaginations.

And be sure to check out this video from Planetary Resources that outlines their Exploration Program:

“The success of the Arykd-6 will validate and inform the design and engineering philosophies we have embraced since the beginning of this innovative project,” said Chris Lewicki, President and CEO, Planetary Resources. “We will continue to employ these methods through the development of the Arkyd-301 and beyond as we progress toward our Space Resource Exploration Mission.”

Further Reading: Planetary Resources

Make a Deal for Land on the Moon

Whether its asteroid prospecting, mining interests, or space tourism, a lot of industries are taking aim at space exploration. Some pioneering spirits – such as Elon Musk – even believe humanity’s survival depends on our colonizing onto other planets – such as the Moon and Mars. It’s little surprise then that lunar land peddlers have begun making deals for land on the Moon.

Currently, a company known as Moon Estates is offering single acre plots for just £16.75 (that’s about $27 US). More importantly, large corporations, entrepreneurs, and even some politicians are eying property on the Moon, hoping to get at its rich resources before long.

Russia has plans for a manned colony which they hope to begin building around 2027. Japan has similar plans, and the Japanese construction firm Shimizu has proposed building a Luna Ring – a ring of solar panels around the moon that would beam enough energy to power the entire planet back to Earth.

Because of this, there are concerns that laws and regulations will need to be drafted to help us all avoid a lot of cutthroat competition and ruthless exploitation when Moon settlement occurs. In addition, the tricky issues of property rights versus sovereignty will need to be ironed out in advance.

If both private interests and governments become involved in Moon prospecting, will this mean an extension of territorial laws (and disputes) into space?

A lunar base, as imagined by NASA in the 1970s. Image Credit: NASA
A lunar base, as imagined by NASA in the 1970s. Image Credit: NASA

Not surprisingly, these concerns have been raised before. During the Cold War, when Russia and the US were racing to conquer space before the other, the issue of national sovereignty and territorial rights naturally reared its ugly head. Luckily, both sides agreed on the common principle that space belong to no one.

In the early 1950s, the US government lobbied for the recognition of outer space as a global commons, mainly because the US was having a hard time infiltrating the Soviet Union with spies. Being dependent on open access to Soviet air space in order to gather intelligence, US officials were insistent that space remain open too.

The Russians agreed, since they too were in no rush to fight the Cold War on yet another front. Hence, both sides perceived outer space as a commons that was non-appropriable – chiefly as a way of preventing disputes over national sovereignty in space.

This principle was put into legislative form in 1967 with Article II of the Outer Space Treaty, which clearly forbade “national appropriation by claims of sovereignty, means of use or occupation by any other means”.

The perigee Super Moon on June 23, 2013, taken with a Skywatcher ED80 Refractor and a Canon 600D at prime focus. Best 20 of 40 images stacked in Registax 6. False colour removed as the Moon appeared dull red as it was so low in sky. Credit and copyright: James Lennie.
Earth’s Moon. Credit and copyright: James Lennie.

However, the introduction of private business into space exploration has complicated matters. As it stands, legal commentators disagree over whether this prohibition is also valid for private appropriation.

Some “space lawyers” have argued that property rights should be recognized on the basis of jurisdiction rather than territorial sovereignty. According to all available records, there was a great deal of opposition to private appropriations when the Space Treaty was being drafted. However, no explicit prohibitions ever made it into Article II.

The subsequent Moon Agreement of 1979 sought to correct for this by including an explicit ban. However, only 16 countries – none of which were involved in manned space exploration – signed the agreement, which left it rather toothless as an international standard.

Consequently, many space entrepreneurs – particularly Dennis Hope of the Lunar Embassy Corporation – think that there is a loophole in Article II which allows private citizens to claim ownership of the moon. Back in 1980, he claimed ownership of the Moon and began selling plots. He has since amassed $11 million dollars from his sales, and his clientele include such big names as Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, and George Lucas.

But most space lawyers point out that states assume international responsibility for activities in space, whether by national companies or private adventurers – and therefore that the same prohibition extends to the private sector.

Artist concept of a base on the Moon. Credit: NASA, via Wikipedia
Artist concept of a base on the Moon. Image Credit: NASA

Hence, legal recognition by a superior authority (such as a nation state, an international organization, or treaty,) is needed if anyone buying these plots wants their property rights to be acknowledged. And since states are not allowed to claim sovereign rights in outer space, landed property on the moon and planets will, in all likelihood, be outlawed.

Naturally, all this remains strictly theoretical for the time being. Until such time as people are able to physically occupy space on the Moon, land deeds will remain meaningless. However, technology could be very close to resolving this issue.

For example, proponents of telepossession point to past instances where salvage companies were able to claim undersea wrecks as property after exploring them with robots.

NASA is already engaged in a form of telexploration on Mars with its army of robotic rovers and orbiters, and this process may be exploited by asteroid prospectors who intend to begin staking claims in the Asteroid Belt next year.

And while legal ownership of the Moon and Mars is prohibited, the rights to explore and exploit natural resources are a bit more ambiguous. It would therefore not be farfetched to assume that entrepreneurs would attempt to make claims to the Moon’s or Mars’ supplies of minerals, water, or Rare Earth Metals in the future.

Further Reading: The Conversation