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Planetary Resources Hits Bump in the Road

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
February 21, 2018
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Arkyd-6 spacecraft (Credit: Planetary Resources)

Alan Boyle at GeekWire reports that asteroid mining company Planetary Resources has been forced to make some cutbacks.

A spokeswoman for Planetary Resources, Stacey Tearne, told GeekWire that financial challenges have forced the company to focus on leveraging the Arkyd-6 mission for near-term revenue — apparently by selling imagery and data.

“Planetary Resources missed a fundraising milestone,” Tearne explained in an email. “The company remains committed to utilizing the resources from space to further explore space, but is focusing on near-term revenue streams by maximizing the opportunity of having a spacecraft in orbit.”

Tearne said no further information was available, and did not address questions about employment cutbacks. However, reports from other sources in the space community suggest there have been notable job reductions. For what it’s worth, Planetary Resources had more than 70 employees at last report.

Planetary Resources has always been a bit of a puzzle. It started way back in 2009 as Arkyd Astronautics, then came out of stealth mode in April 2012 — six long years ago — with Peter Diamandis, Eric Anderson and a handful of prominent billionaire backers that included Richard Branson and Google’s Eric Schmidt and Larry Page.

During the launch event, Peter D — whose ability to hype things has grown exponentially over the years — conjured up images of a trillion-dollar company mining the sky and becoming the engine of the space economy. It all sounded great, bring it on, allons-y!

The problem the company seems to have is that asteroid mining is a long-term venture. In the meantime, it’s got to find revenue generating activities to bring in money and partners willing to fund the research and development (R&D) work needed to make asteroid mining a reality.

The list of billionaires and millionaires advertised during the roll out was impressive enough, but it’s not clear how much money they’re actually investing in the company. There doesn’t appear to be a Jeff Bezos in the group willing to invest $1 billion per year (or whatever it would take) to develop the technologies needed in the near term.

Then there were the pivots. The company launched a your selfie in space Kickstarter campaign that got a lot of interest. But, the plan was dependent upon raising additional money to launch the satellite. When the funding didn’t materialize, the project was canceled and the money refunded.

Planetary Resources did raise money for a planned constellation of remote sensing satellites. However, plans to enter that competitive and increasingly crowded market were quietly dropped.

The company has received investment from Luxembourg, which has taken a strong interest in space resources. That funding should help the company with R&D work. By the same token, this is a commercial venture backed by some of the world’s richest men who are supposed to become illionaires with a “t”. So, why aren’t they investing more? Why is government funding needed?

Arkyd-6 is the company’s third satellite since it was founded in 2009. The first was destroyed in the explosion of an Antares rocket on Oct. 31, 2014. The second was later successfully launched from the International Space Station. However, in sharp contrast to the publicity accorded Arkyd-6, Planetary Resources said very little about it after it was released from the station.