Deep Space Industries, a newly formed private company, is reportedly considering plans to launch the world’s first asteroid-hunt spacecraft, part of an ambitious project aimed at turning a profit.
The company, in a statement released to the press, says its ambitious project will involve launching spacecraft capable of harvesting precious metals and other resources.
According to David Grump, the company’s president, the project will begin in earnest in 2015. Three laptop-size spacecraft — dubbed FireFlies — will travel on a mission to nearby asteroids, collecting data on the space rocks that can then be used to better analyze whether to harvest the asteroid. Beginning in 2016, larger spacecraft — dubbed Dragonflies — will be sent to collect soil samples from the asteroids, returning upwards of four times before a final decision is made. The company said it currently plans on making a final decision by 2020, saying at that time that it will launch a series of fully-loaded spacecraft in order to harvest the asteroids.
“Using resources harvested in space is the only way to afford permanent space development,” said Grump. “In this case, metals and fuel from asteroids can expand the in-space industries of this century. That is our strategy.”
While the project seems far-fetched, the company noted that preliminary studies show that an asteroid orbiting Earth would be worth upwards of $1 million. Upwards of 9,000 asteroids pass near Earth each year, and some are thought to be full of precious metals and other resources — including water, which makes up around 20 percent of the mass of some asteroids.
It remains unclear whether Deep Space Industries will return the harvested resources to Earth. The company has noted that by collected metals and leaving them in space could provide space agencies around the world with a trove of useful materials, easily accessible in the confines of low-Earth orbit. For example, the company says it expects to harvest a large amount of water, which it notes can then be broken down and used as fuel.
While the project may seem otherworldly in the technology needed to successfully carry it out, the company said it will rely on upcoming 3D printing technology to produce a large portion of its components. The company says relying on a 3D printer called the Microgravity Foundry to help manufacture metal parts in space from pure asteroid could greatly reduce the cost associated with multiple round-trips.
That said, as to which asteroids are the most profitable remains to be seen. While some are thought to hold vast reserves of gold and platinum, others may hold nothing of any use at all.
Deep Space Industries is not the first company to propose an asteroid mining venture. A number of companies have been recently formed in order to do just that. In 2012, Planetary Resources, an asteroid mining company with the backing of James Cameron, Larry Page, and Eric Schmidt, announced plans to begin examining whether asteriods could be mined at a profit.
Mining asteroids could make major space missions far easier for space agencies, including NASA. The U.S. space agency, which plans to launch its own mission to a nearby asteroid before 2030, already has plans to send astronauts on a six-month mission to Mars. The trip would likely push the boundaries of science and fuel technology, a feat that seem far more plausible with an unwavering, asteroid-based fuel supply.