23rd January 2013
Asteroid mining company reveals plans
A new company – Deep Space Industries – aims to turn what was once science fiction into a reality, by using a fleet of robotic spacecraft to harvest the riches from asteroids.
As we mentioned in a previous blog, Deep Space Industries (DSI) is the second company in less than a year to announce plans for mining asteroids. DSI was officially launched in Santa Monica, California, and its website has now been updated with pictures, videos and information.
There are currently three spacecraft in development, which are as follows:
The first proposed spacecraft is the "FireFly", pictured below. This small vessel weighs just 25 kg (55 lb) and is a prospecting craft, designed to search for suitable asteroids. A small fleet of these miniature probes will be constructed using inexpensive CubeSat components, sharing rockets with much larger communications satellites in order to further reduce costs. They will be launched in 2015, on journeys of two to six months, with DSI working alongside NASA and other companies to identify targets of opportunity.
The second spacecraft, known as the "DragonFly", is predicted by the company to launch starting in 2016. These will be sample return missions, collecting up to 150 kg (330 lb) of material from an asteroid's surface and bringing it back to Earth. Each expedition will take two to four years, depending on the target.
The third spacecraft is the "Harvestor", which DSI hopes to be fully operational by 2023. This will begin actively mining for metals and water. In order to aid in the processing of metals from asteroids, the company has developed a 3D printer known as the MicroGravity Foundry, which is, in the words of company co-founder Stephen Covey, "the first 3D printer that creates high-density, high-strength metal components even in zero gravity". The water mined by DSI may be reconstituted into hydrogen and oxygen, and thus may be used in "refueling stations" supplying interplanetary spacecraft on long journeys with rocket fuel. Precious metals such as platinum may be brought to Earth.
Click to enlarge
Senior leaders at NASA have already been briefed on DSI’s technologies, which would make eventual crewed Mars trips less expensive through the use of asteroid-derived propellant. Missions would require fewer launches if the fuel needed were supplied en route from the volatiles in asteroids. Mars missions would be safer with a MicroGravity Foundry on board to print replacements for broken parts, or to create brand new parts invented after the expedition was on its way.
DSI founder, David Gump: “Using resources harvested in space is the only way to afford permanent space development. More than 900 new asteroids that pass near Earth are discovered every year. They can be like the Iron Range of Minnesota was for the Detroit car industry last century – a key resource located near where it was needed. In this case, metals and fuel from asteroids can expand the in-space industries of this century. That is our strategy.”
For example, a large market for DSI is producing fuel for communications satellites. Low-cost asteroid propellant delivered in orbit to commsats will extend their working lifetimes, with each extra month worth $5 million to $8 million per satellite. DSI has executed a non-disclosure agreement with an aerospace company to discuss collaboration on this opportunity. Further into the future, Deep Space could be harvesting metals and other building materials for the construction of large space stations, communications platforms, and eventually solar power stations to beam carbon-free energy down to consumers on Earth. As DSI refines asteroids for in-space markets, it will also harvest platinum group metals.
Deep Space is looking for customers and sponsors who want to be a part of creating this new space economy. The company believes that taking the long view, while creating value, opportunities and products in the near term will allow it to become one of the economic engines that opens space to humanity. By getting underway and taking calculated risks, while developing basic industrial technologies, DSI will be well positioned over time to supply the basic needs of life in space. Taking the idea of socially-minded companies to a new level, DSI is literally reaching for the stars.
The DSI Chairman is Rick Tumlinson, who signed up the world's first space tourist, led the team that took over the Mir space station, was a Founding Trustee of X Prize, and founded Orbital Outfitters, the world's first commercial space suit company. He had this to say: "This is the first commercial campaign to explore the small asteroids that pass by Earth. Using low cost technologies and combining the legacy of our space program with the innovation of today's young hi-tech geniuses, we will do things that would have been impossible just a few years ago."
“We will only be visitors in space until we learn how to live off the land there,” concluded Tumlinson. “This is the Deep Space mission – to find, harvest and process the resources of space to help save our civilisation and support the expansion of humanity beyond the Earth – and doing so in a step-by-step manner that leverages off our space legacy to create an amazing and hopeful future for humanity. We are squarely focused on giving new generations the opportunity to change not only this world, but all the worlds of tomorrow. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?”