Planetary Resources, the space mining company, has launched its first probe, Arkyd 3 Reflight (A3R). It will circle the Earth to test avionics, control systems and software. That's a point of no return right there. Later this year its successor, A6, will be put in orbit for more testing.
A decade or two from now, we may wonder: when exactly did space mining start? Was it when the first chunks of asteroid material were dug up and processed? When the first ounces of space-mined platinum were sold on the market? Or was it way back in 2010 when the founding of Planetary Resources (PR) was announced? It's all arbitrary, of course.
I've been getting news from PR ever since this historic lecture by Peter Diamandis and Eric Andersen at Google's Solve for X conference in 2013:
And ever since I started this blog I've asked myself: when shall I do a posting on their work? Anyone can announce a plan. Should I do it when the A3R was launched from Cape Canaveral to space station ISS? When A6 was vibration tested? There were plenty of opportunities but early on I decided to do it as soon as their first satellite was in space, on its own. That's now. They've crossed a real, physical threshold. The work in space has started. As far as I'm concerned, that's a point of no return.
There will be setbacks, like there was one on 28 October 2014, when the very first A3R that was supposed to fly, was destroyed with the Antares rocket that was carrying it to the ISS. Space mining may turn out to be too difficult to do. It's a venture that still can fail. But from now on you can follow what they do, step by step, just like you may have followed the New Horizons spacecraft. They will test the Arkyd family of satellites, then start using them as space telescopes to identify the best targets for space mining among near-Earth asteroids. This may take a decade.
Along the way PR will initiate spinoff projects, like renting out observation time on their space telescopes, or mining space for water for fuel. We'll be able to follow that too, and see how the project evolves. Because it will. Some plans will not materialize, others will pop up and succeed. It's a moonshot if ever there was one.
And if PR turns out to be successful, they will initiate a whole new industry of 'me too' companies. Because there's plenty of space, plenty of demand for resources and plenty asteroids to be mined. Mining companies will need lots of rockets, and both mining companies and rocket companies will need lots of engineers.
If watching this happen isn't enough fun for you, why not take part?
Herbert Blankesteijn is a technology journalist from the Netherlands who has written for many prominent Dutch newspapers. He presented and directed television and radio programmes and has 10 books to his name. Herbert is interested in nascent fields such as 3D printing, drones, robotics and the private space business.