On Thursday morning, private asteroid mining company Planetary Resources successfully launched its first demonstration spacecraft from the International Space Station (ISS) to begin testing technologies for mining minerals from asteroids.
The Arkyd 3 Reflight (A3R) spacecraft made its first journey to space and docked at the ISS in April, onboard the SpaceX Falcon 9 resupply craft. On July 16, that spacecraft left the ISS and has now begun its 90-day mission to test its technologies, including the craft's avionics, control systems and software.
"The A3R is the most sophisticated, yet cost-effective, test demonstration spacecraft ever built. We are innovating on every level from design to launch," said Planetary Resources president Chris Lewicki in a press statement. "By vertically integrating the system at our facility in Redmond, we are in constant control of every component, including the ones we purchase off the shelf and the others that we manufacture using 3D printers."
The company plans on testing their technologies as much as possible, not just with the A3R, but with future spacecraft, as well. Once A3R finishes its mission, engineers will take what they've learned and develop the Arkyd-6 (A6) spacecraft. The A6's mission will test other technologies, such as power and communications systems.
The A6 also offers a greater payload so that testing can include that which is needed to measure the resources on asteroids with good potential. Before future asteroid mining missions can begin, however, the technologies will first have to be tested on Earth.
"This key technology for determining resources on asteroids can also be applied toward monitoring and managing high-value resources on our home planet," said Planetary Resources co-founder Eric Anderson. "All of our work at Planetary Resources is laying the foundation to better manage and increase humanity's access to natural resources on our planet and in our solar system."
Ultimately, Planetary Resources hopes to create a spacecraft that can mine asteroids for water. Why water? Because water in space is rare and getting water from Earth to spaceships is difficult. If a spacecraft can mine water from an asteroid and deliver it to astronauts on Mars, that will save a lot of time, effort and money for future expeditions into deep space.
But that's not the only reason that mining water in space is important. Water can also be broken down into its base elements – hydrogen and oxygen – which can then become rocket fuel.