Planetary Resources Inks 3D Systems Deal, Plans Test Launch From ISS

Planetary Resources is adding a new investor and collaborator to help manufacture its planned asteroid-mining spacecraft, a test version of which could be launched into low-Earth orbit from the International Space Station in less than a year.

The Bellevue, WA, company is taking an undisclosed investment from 3D Systems (NYSE: DDD) and will make use of its 3D printing technology to manufacture components of the Arkyd spacecraft that Planetary Resources intends to use for finding near-Earth asteroids.

South Carolina-based 3D Systems is “at the forefront of one of the most rapidly developing technologies on the planet,” says Chris Lewicki, Planetary Resources president and chief engineer. “We see a great opportunity in the development of our spacecraft using that technology.”

3D printers could make components of the company’s Arkyd series spacecraft, designed to identify, and ultimately capture and mine, near-Earth asteroids, which contain metals, water, and other resources that would be used in space—saving the enormous cost of launching them from Earth. Indeed, 3D printing represents the other end of the space manufacturing supply chain Planetary Resources seeks to initiate with asteroid mining.

“In the long term, we also see the huge potential for additive manufacturing in space,” Lewicki says of the arrangement with 3D Systems. “This is really the game-changer of being able to use the resources in space, and just send the information from Earth” to a 3D printer.

Planetary Resources also confirmed plans to launch the A3, a precursor of its Arkyd 100 space telescope, as soon as April 2014. Rather than launching from Earth directly as a payload on a rocket, the company is contracting with NanoRacks, a Houston, TX-based startup, to take the A3 to the International Space Station, where it would be released from an airlock.

NanoRacks—which recently attracted $2.6 million in venture investment—makes platforms for miniaturized scientific experiments both inside and outside the International Space Station (ISS) and for small satellites, such as CubeSats, 10-centimeter cubes that are a more affordable means of reaching space for academic researchers, companies, governments, and even amateur groups. NanoRacks sends its payloads—which have included a whisky experiment for Ardbeg Distillery in Scotland—to the ISS on cargo flights from companies such as SpaceX and the Russian Soyuz vehicles.

The A3 CubeSat would be released from the Kibo airlock of the ISS.

“We certainly feel that the best place to test space hardware is in space,” Lewicki says. “What’s great about these opportunities [such as NanoRacks] is they are becoming more and more frequent, and much more cost-effective.”

The A3, which is about a third of the size of the Arkyd 100, is being designed to test avionics and control systems. It includes all of the key systems of the Arkyd 100, except for the large optic, Lewicki says.

Planetary Resources last week passed its goal of raising $1 million on Kickstarter to fund a private space telescope. People who pledged will have access to the telescope, which the company plans to launch in 2015, for a space self-portrait or private research, education, and photography—depending on the amount contributed. The company said it would outfit the Arkyd 100 with additional features to allow it to hunt for planets beyond the solar system if backers pledged $2 million on Kickstarter by the end of the month. At midday Wednesday, June 26, that goal looked unlikely, with about $1.2 million pledged.

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