Planetary Resources Raises $21M for Near-Term Market: Earth Observation
The same satellite-based sensors Planetary Resources is developing to prospect for asteroids in deep space can be pointed back at Earth to help global agribusinesses and commodities traders monitor crops, and enable oil and gas drillers to find new targets.
The Bellevue, WA-based space company announced a $21.1 million funding round to support work toward a near-term business opportunity in Earth observation—taking advantage of the hyperspectral and thermographic sensors it is refining in service of its long-term goal of tapping the resources of space.
“Our plan in establishing a company with an audacious mission of prospecting and mining asteroids was to recognize that we needed to use our technology and our innovations to create business opportunities along the way,” says Planetary Resources president and CEO Chris Lewicki.
The new funding round—which Lewicki says remains open and is expected to reach $25 million in total—comes from an eclectic group of investors including Chinese Internet giant Tencent, investment fund Grishin Robotics, the Space Angels Network, and Google co-founder and Alphabet CEO Larry Page. The round was led by Bryan Johnson’s OS Fund, and also includes Idea Bulb Ventures, Vast Ventures, Conversion Capital, The Seraph Group, and an AngelList syndicate.
Planetary Resources was co-founded (under a different name) seven years ago by Eric Anderson and Peter Diamandis, and has developed technologies and launched test satellites with funding mainly from founders and other founding angel investors including Page, Eric Schmidt, Richard Branson, and Rena Shulsky David.
“That has gotten us through the early years of the company, and as many companies do, when you get to a certain point, and you see a business opportunity, you need to scale to meet that opportunity,” Lewicki says.
There are several Seattle-area entrants in the growing business of Earth observation, either as direct service providers, such as BlackSky Global, or as developers of satellite communications technology. Examples of the latter include metamaterials satellite antenna maker Kymeta and Kepler Communications, a company in the latest class of Techstars Seattle building a network to access satellite data in real time. Companies are using modern sensors in space—thanks to increasingly affordable satellite platforms—as well as on drones and other platforms to provide businesses with better-quality data for a range of applications.
The thermographic sensors Planetary Resources has developed to identify asteroids containing water and hydrated minerals—initial space mining targets because they are necessary to support human life and can be used to make rocket fuels—can also monitor soil moisture content across hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland on Earth. The technology, which detects heat signatures, can also evaluate crop health by measuring the temperature of a crop’s canopy, Lewicki says.
He says the hyperspectral imaging sensors can measure the reflected light from an object to ascertain its composition. Pointed at Earth, this kind of sensor could provide not just a picture of crops, but more precise measurements. “Being able to say, ‘There are this many acres of corn planted in Iowa this week,’ is something that is powerful information for financial markets,” Lewicki says.
Planetary Resources has developed the sensors either by building them from raw parts or adapting existing technology for use in space. Lewicki says the company holds intellectual property in how to make such adaptations, and to do so “at a cost lower than ever has been offered before.”
Later this summer, Planetary Resources aims to launch an Arkyd 6 satellite outfitted with the thermographic sensor. (It would go to orbit aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket as a secondary payload brokered by the rocket ridesharing arm of Seattle-based firm Spaceflight.) The plan is to launch a cluster of 10 satellites with both sensors by 2019, which the company is calling Ceres, to provide customers with global coverage.
The Ceres business gives Planetary Resources the opportunity to generate revenue and continue developing technology to take its sensors into deep space and hunt for asteroids.
Planetary Resources has about 50 employees and continues to hire in support of its larger mission. Lewicki says a relatively small staff will be specifically dedicated to Ceres because the company is able to leverage its existing technology and expertise.
Meanwhile, the company has cancelled the crowd-funded space telescope project it launched in 2013 and plans to offer full refunds to the 17,614 people who backed it on Kickstarter to the tune of more than $1.5 million. Backers who contributed $25 or more were enticed by the prospect of a “space selfie”—a picture of their choosing that was to be displayed on the satellite telescope’s external screen and photographed with Earth in the background.
Lewicki says it was a difficult decision. The company had sought interest and financial support for the private space telescope from the education and business sectors. “Unfortunately, we really didn’t find that follow-on interest,” he says.
The company had positioned the effort as a new model for funding space exploration, underscoring a mass of public interest and support. “Our goal is to democratize the access to space,” Diamandis said at a 2013 launch event at the Museum of Flight. “This stuff has been for decades militarized and very expensive.”
Lewicki says the company regrets abandoning the project and the store of goodwill and public enthusiasm it generated, and pledged to find other ways to “take people on our journey and share our story… We enjoy [that] every bit as much as we do building hardware that goes on up to space.”