Jul 22, 2015 ยท 6 minutes

Space is suddenly famous again in America.

In recent weeks it’s tickled the nation’s UFO funny bone with NASA’s Dawn beaming back images of the mysterious bright lights and pyramidal land-forms on the surface of Ceres; delivered whimsy and wonder with close-range images of distant, forsaken Pluto; and inspired audacity and hope with Yuri Milner’s financial quest for extraterrestrial sentience.  

It didn’t stop there. On Monday, as Milner announced his commitment to answering life’s most profound question (are there aliens?), everyone’s favorite entrepreneur, Elon Musk, took a pause from conquering the future for a moment of pathos and a nod to space, the cruel beloved.

During a conference call, Musk discussed the causes for the launch failure last month of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket launch: a faulty helium bottle strut, and complacency.

"The vast number of people we have at the company today have only seen success. When you’ve only seen success, you aren’t as afraid of failure," he said, at the closing of the call.

In the midst of all this fanfare, another little item slipped into the solar system.

On July 16th the Arkyd 3 Reflight spacecraft disembarked from the International Space Station into its own orbit for a 90 day test of its parent company’s core spaceflight systems, orbiting the earth every 90 minutes a couple hundred miles up. Unfortunately, it won’t be taking any low-orbit selfies. The 17,600 Kickstarter backers who in 2013 paid a collective $1.5 million for them will have to wait until for the next launch. Such are the wages of space.

Of course, the Arkyd line of spacecraft are not only the result of a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund “the world’s first public space telescope.” It is the first product released by Planetary Resources, the Seattle-based asteroid mining company which raised an undisclosed round in April from a venture outfit out of Washington called the Space Angels Network.

“The Arkyd 3 is the beta craft, the basic bones.” said Planetary Resources President Chris Lewicki.

Planetary Resources is not to be confused with Planetary Ventures, Google’s real estate shell company. Though both companies have ties to NASA, The asteroidal miners are at one further remove from Google: Larry Page and Eric Schmidt both provided seed money for the company. And Planetary Resources has some Google on the inside too.

Lewicki said many of the company’s 40 engineers come from NASA, veterans like him of many missions out of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“But we also have people from Google, Intel, even the automotive industry.”

Planetary Resources lists Hollywood’s James Cameron as an advisor. In 2009, the year of the company’s founding, Cameron produced, wrote and directed a box office smash combining Fern Gully and Dances With Wolves into a story of love set in the midst of a crazed corporate-military attempt to pillage distant world for their resources.

This may prompt some people to question the firm’s seriousness in its quest to mine the asteroid field for precious materials. But they’re serious.

“We are developing vertically integrated technology for a space sensor platform to characterize where the best resources are in our solar system. We’ll send our Arkyd 300 prospecting space technology out looking at different asteroids to help identify the market as to where the best place would be to get started. In that we are following a tried and true method from hundreds of years on this planet, just the technology is different,” Lewicki said.

Before any Planetary Resources spacecraft carries its prospecting equipment to any other celestial body, it will be testing it out near Earth. Of course, that presents business opportunities.

“A big misconception is that we’ll have to wait to mine an asteroid to make money. We have been generating revenue working on a number of things for private companies and government with technology we’ve developed for our audacious goals,” Lewicki said.

He said the company was developing infrared sensing equipment and software, as well as propulsion and optical communications lasers (not too unlike drone or satellite-based internet connectivity schemes on Earth). In 2018, Lewicki hopes to launch the first asteroid-prospecting missions, beginning mining operation in the early 2020’s and unlike many of the most audacious tech operations on Earth, Planetary Venture's asteroid treasure hunting has already been green-lit by regulators.

The firm is not acting alone.

“Looking forward, we have another NASA collaboration, on advanced imaging for identifying precious resources, developing an instrument that NASA is interested in using on our own planet.”

And private interests have their eye on what the company is up to.

“We do have partnerships. We have an industrial partner, Bechtel Corporation. They’re very interested in following along with us developing industry in a new location,” Lewicki said.

It seems that Planetary Resources’ steering committee might have taken their advisory viewing of Avatar somewhat askew. If ever there was a corporation that fit the model of the bad military-industrialists in that 3D money-pot, it’s Bechtel.

According to Steven Labaton for the New York Times in 1988:

No other private corporation in modern history has had closer ties to the Federal Government than Bechtel. In the Reagan Administration alone, the engineering services company has supplied a secretary of state (George P. Shultz), a defense secretary (Caspar W. Weinberger) and a deputy secretary of energy (W. Kenneth Davis).

Bechtel also supplied a CIA director, Richard Helms, and has a sometimes sordid history of involvement with that agency’s intrigues around the world. Bechtel is the third largest private company in U.S. with a reported $37.9 million in 2012 revenues, and if you haven’t heard of it that’s how it earned the epithet “the most secret corporation.”

Bechtel is even the gnarliest private company in all of San Francisco’s SOMA, though Chairman, CEO and successor Riley Bechtel is only ranked at #693 on the real-time Forbes ranking of billionaires at press time.

Larry Page is at #14, and Planetary Resources may be off to an early lead in corporate space imperialism, with an Earthy flavor notes.

“It is like the second space race. This time it’s not two superpowers but a number of big business interests,” said Lewicki.

“There is no commercially available technology like what we’ll be employing. Right now it’s exclusively on government satellites. We’re bringing a unique capability, by using it for resources here on Earth. Our whole spectrum of sensor tech lends itself to applications here on Earth. Some right off the bat, some down the line.”

Current business opportunities aside, the over-arching goal of bringing back precious payloads from asteroids presents daunting obstacles. In 2010 the unmanned Japanese spacecraft Hayabusa brought back a few grains of asteroidal matter back to earth, the only such sample ever delivered. Landing on a space body is incredibly more difficult (and costly) than launching craft into low-earth orbit, and Moore’s Law won’t help you much there. Landing a craft large enough to extract and return a payload of any size from an asteroid remains beyond the scope of any governmental space agency, not to mention private venture-backed company.

Still, one can dream, and with sound financial rationale. This past weekend, an asteroid passing close to Earth made news when it was assessed to be worth trillions of dollars, based on its platinum core alone.

As I write, the Arkyd 3R cycles overhead, and Larry Page makes his money from advertising-tech. The latter could change, if Chris Lewicki and his team have anything to do with it.

“It’s just a matter of rocket science, all these things are fairly well understood. The future is coming faster than you think.”

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article misstated the size of the round raised from Space Angels Network.