Planetary Resources, a company devoted to prospecting asteroids and mining them for their mineral wealth, is getting into the Earth observation business, the company announced. The company has developed a new Earth observation satellite it called the Ceres, based on technology being prepared for the Arkyd spacecraft designed to prospect asteroids. Planetary Resources has raised $21.1 million in series A funding to start testing the technology and deploying the satellites.

Planetary Resources envisions a constellation of 10 satellites in low Earth orbit performing observations using a mid-wave infrared sensor that will be able to detect thermographic properties of both land and water.

The satellites will also contain a hyperspectral sensor that can take images in the visible to near infrared range.

The Ceres system will have a variety of applications, including crop monitoring, determining water quality, detecting and categorizing new energy resources, and even spotting wildfires in their earliest stages so they can be put out before they get out of control. Possible customers include farmers, oil and gas companies, and governments. Ceres will be a multipurpose platform for searching out and monitoring natural resources on Earth.

The initial funding will be enough to test the thermographic sensor on the Arkyd 6 spacecraft to be launched by a SpaceX Falcon 9 in the near future.

The move by Planetary Resources into the Earth observation business has a couple of implications.

Top Videos of the Day

First, the company may be able to establish a profitable business in the near term while it continues to develop its long-term dream of mining asteroids, where some estimate trillions of dollars of minerals reside. The strategy means that Planetary Resources is more likely to remain viable in the long term.

Second, a commercial Earth observation business has implications for public policy. When Senator Ted Cruz questioned NASA spending for Earth science at a hearing last year, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden deftly avoided the touchy subject of climate change. Instead, he suggested that the Space agency’s research had practical applications, for example determining soil quality in Texas. However, if such operations are being conducted by commercial companies, money currently being spent on Earth science can be diverted to space exploration, an often expressed desire of Cruz.