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April 27, 2012

SWAGing an Asteroid Mining Business Case - Before Mining

By Doug Mohney, Contributing Editor

Planetary Resources has presented a bold idea: mine the thousands of near earth objects (NEO) – asteroids – to open up space exploration and deliver precious metals for enabling a better world. 

But how do you get to the point just before you start actually mining, and how much money does it take? Planetary has presented an interesting business model to support the prospecting phase of its operations and it probably doesn't cost that much.

Even before building its first satellite, Planetary Resources is "profitable," according to company officials, whatever that means when a privately held company doesn't provide details on finances. Under its previous identity as Arkyd Astronautics, it has a small business innovation grant (SBIR) contract with NASA to develop an optical system to be incorporated in small satellites for high-precision pointing and laser communications. Once fully refined, the enabling technology can be sold and/or licensed to other companies for applications requiring high bandwidth communication and precision pointing.

But the first step to prospecting is to launch a small, light-weight space telescope into low earth orbit (LEO), and start scanning the area around earth for NEOs. The Arkdy Series 100 Leo space telescope masses about 30 to 50 kilograms – a bit more than 100 pounds – and will cost an order of magnitude lower than tradition hardware and be in the "tens of millions" of dollars, ultimately dropping to single-digit millions.

Is it feasible? The U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command has been waiting for a ride for its 20-pound Kestrel Eye optical imaging satellite for a while. The satellite is designed to provide 1.5-meter resolution imagery to troops on the ground at a mass production cost of about a million dollars per satellite.

Figure that building an Arkdy Series 100 will cost around $15 million. Add another $10 million or so to get it launched, for a total in-orbit price of $25 million. Figure initial investors have put in somewhere between in the range of $25 million to $30 million for the first satellite and ongoing operations.

Planetary Resources is more than happen enough to sell observation time on its Leo satellite, at a price which should be attractive to the educational, government and private industries. Executives boasted the satellite could make a NEO seeking pass on one orbit and turn back towards earth for observations on the next one.

Google executives Larry Page (News - Alert) and Eric Schmidt are both investors in Planetary. Given that Google purchases a lot of satellite imagery for Google Maps and Google Earth, the two certainly know the going price for pictures from space.

Moving beyond Leo into the second and third generation satellites adds an incremental development cost and more satellites in orbit. The Arkdy Series 200 Interceptor adds propulsion and more instruments so it can "chase" local NEOs while the Series 300 incorporates the fancy laser tech and is designed to go out in swarms of satellites to finely detail all the characters of an asteroid.  

More capability per satellite increases cost and adds mass – ramping up launch costs as well – but production in quantity and newer technologies rolled into each generation should work to lower costs. Launch costs by the time the Arkdy Series 300 rolls around might be lower if Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin or SpaceX (News - Alert) can crack the affordable reusable rocket equation.

Needless to say, regardless of how much costs go up or down, more investor cash will be needed to move into the second and third generation of Arkdy satellites. Having available capital shouldn't be a problem, according to Planetary, because its investors include the aforementioned Google executives, Ross Perot Jr. and Microsoft billionaire Charles Simonyi. 

At this point, guessing a price tag (News - Alert) on building and launching a number of satellites to get to a detailed service of a select number of asteroids gets into very speculative territory. Under $500 million? Under $250 million? Under $200 million? It's affordable for a bunch of billionaires and the number probably falls in the same range as their private customized jet or super yacht.

Moving into harvesting is a whole different ballgame. Planetary is roughly a decade away from harvesting its first NEO. There are too many unknowns – cost of launch services, cost of robots to move, process, store and deliver useable goods and what the market will be for space-based water and platinum group metals in 2014.

Edited by Braden Becker

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