Planetary Resources finally deploys first spacecraft after explosive setback

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The A3R is a small spacecraft that is hoped to launch a whole new industry(Credit: Planetary Resources)

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The asteroid-mining industry has taken a step closer to becoming an actual thing, with the successful deployment of Planetary Resources' Arkyd 3 Reflight (A3R) spacecraft from the International Space Station Wednesday night. The A3R's three-month mission will be used to test and validate some basic technologies that the company hopes to incorporate in future spacecraft that will prospect near-Earth asteroids for potentially valuable resources.

"Our philosophy is to test often, and if possible, to test in space," says Planetary Resources president and chief engineer Chris Lewicki. "The A3R is the most sophisticated, yet cost-effective, test demonstration spacecraft ever built."

The small craft was sent to the ISS aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 resupply mission in April. On Wednesday (July 15), it was sent out the Kibo airlock to begin checking out its avionics, control systems and software, among other systems. It will be followed up by the Arkyd-6 (A6), another demonstrator set to launch later this year. The larger A6 will check out next-generation attitude control, power and communication systems, as well as the sensors that will be used to detect resources with good potential for mining.

Eventually, the technology being tested in the A3R and A6 will be incorporated into the planned Arkyd 100, which includes a space telescope that will be used to hunt for promising objects to mine.

The A3R launched to the ISS aboard a SpaceX rocket in April(Credit: SpaceX)

Planetary Resources crowdfunded over US$1.5 million for the telescope back in 2013, in hopes of being able to launch in 2015. However, that initial timeline has slipped by more than a year. It's hard to blame this on the company, however, given that the original A3R tester was destroyed when an unmanned Antares rocket carrying it to the ISS exploded last year.

Planetary Resources' leadership and investors include big names in tech and business like Google's Eric Schmidt, Larry Page, X-Prize founder Peter Diamandis, Ross Perot, Jr. and filmmaker James Cameron. It may need to lean on such industry firepower to get all the way to what seems like a rather distant finish line – a world in which mining off-world for precious metals, materials and even water is a reality.

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