Planetary Resources, a company that wants to mine asteroids for precious materials, has just launched a demonstration vehicle to test out its asteroid mining technologies. The breadbox-sized Arkyd 3 Reflight (A3R) is so-named because the original Arkyd 3 died a fiery death in the Orbital Sciences explosion in October. This one survived its launch to the International Space Station in April, and today, astronauts booted it out of an airlock to see how it fares in low Earth orbit.
The vehicle’s mission is to test out components that the company later plans to send into deep space to visit resource-rich asteroids, with the goal of extracting water, which can be broken down in to hydrogen and oxygen for rocket fuel, and valuable metals, including platinum.
Over the next 90 days or so, the little spacecraft will test out its avionics and control systems–it won’t actually be doing any drilling anytime soon. While low Earth orbit isn’t a perfect facsimile to deep space, it will give the components a taste of the harsh environments they would face on the job—including extremely cold temperatures, radiation, and the vacuum of space. By pinpointing the components’ weaknesses in low Earth orbit, the company can hopefully fix any problems before sending spacecraft further beyond Earth.
The test is going according to plan so far, a Planetary Resources spokesperson told Popular Science.
Later this year, Planetary Resources plans to launch another demonstration vehicle, the Arkyd-6. Twice the size of the A3R, the A6 will test out avionics, attitude control, power, and communications systems. (Notably, the robo-prospectors will eventually use LASERS to communicate with Earth.)
Onboard the A6 will also be an infrared imaging system, which will eventually scan asteroids for water and minerals. A Planetary Resources press release says “the system will first test targeted areas of our own planet before being deployed to near-Earth asteroids on future missions.”
Planetary Resource’s Arkyd-6 test vehicle is expected to launch in 2015 or 2016
Later on, the company will figure out the best way to extract the resources from asteroids. But here’s one way it could be done, from a Planetary Resources video: