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Though its best known for pushing ahead with plans to take paying customers into space, kick-starting widespread space tourism, Richard Branson this week announced at the Farnborough International Airshow that the company is still firmly behind its small satellite launch system. And the billionaire-backed asteroid-mining company Planetary Resources might well be one of its earliest adopters...

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The concept of LauncherOne is one likely to be familiar to those of you who have an understanding of the the plans to shuttle prospective space tourists to the defined boundary of space for an out-of-this-world view. Largely understood to have been working on the project since 2008, Virgin has tentatively pencilled in 2016 as the year in which the satellite-wielding LauncherOne will be launched into space beneath the jet-powered cargo aircraft WhiteKnightTwo. Moreover, Virgin boasts that it will eventually be able to send small satellites up to 225kg into orbit for around $10 million, “two to five times less” than its current competitors such as Orbital Sciences Corporation's Pegasus system, which can carry satellites of up to 1500kg.

Likewise, having announced in late-April its ground-breaking plans to mine asteroids for precious metals and rare minerals in order to help “chart the future” and “add trillions of dollars to the global GDP”, the James Cameron and Google co-founders'-backed Planetary Resources has unveiled its intentions to 'hitch' a ride with Virgin Galactic, hoping to send its own 'asteroid-hunting' satellites into orbit in order to spot and analyse asteroids of between 50 and 500 metres in diameter. Through measuring the reflectivity of such space rocks, the company will get a good indication of those more mineral-rich in nature, thereby eliminating those more risky trips. So far, so Mass Effect 2...

But sending asteroid-hunting satellites will be just the very first of multiple steps on the road to Planetary Resources actually mining asteroids in space, however. Spotting an asteroid potentially rich in minerals and precious metals will lead the company to launch reconnaissance spacecraft to examine such space rocks at a closer proximity. Only after a successful examination will they actually proceed in mining them. “We are excited to announce this agreement with Virgin Galactic. LauncherOne has the potential to provide reliable and continuous launch service capability for small payloads. I expect Planetary Resources will launch several constellations of Arkyd-100 Series spacecraft in the coming years,” said co-founder and co-chairman of Planetary Resources Eric Anderson. Tantalising.

Richard Birkett

I am the Founder and Editor-in-chief of New Rising Media. You can follow me on Twitter @MrJasonEngland.