A new asteroid mining company may allow humans to explore deeper into space, the latest in a series of private enterprises aimed at harvesting the resources of asteroids in order to turn a profit.
Deep Space Industries, Inc., announced plans on Tuesday to launch a fleet of asteroid-mining spacecraft in 2015. These space-bound mining vessels will harvest water, precious metals, and other valuable resources from asteroids that orbit near Earth.
David Gump, CEO of Deep Space, says he hopes the company will provide space agencies around the world with an alternative to Earth-based fuel and materials, noting that a lack of resources in space remains a major hurdle for deep-space missions.
“Using resources harvested in space is the only way to afford permanent space development,” Gump said in a statement. “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.”
Fans of the TV show producer Joss Whedon may enjoy the name of Deep Space’s mining spacecraft. Called “FireFlies,” these 55-pound spacecrafts will launch in 2015 and begin to explore asteroids that may become future mining sites for the company.
The FireFlies will be economically constructed and travel lightly. According to Deep Space officials, the spacecraft will be built from “cubestat” (a kind of mini-satellite) components, and will ride alongside large communications satellites in rockets already set to launch. The team says it hopes the early tests will demonstrate that the project is economically viable.
“We can make amazing machines smaller, cheaper and faster than ever before. Imagine a production line of FireFlies, cocked and loaded and ready to fly out to examine any object that gets near the Earth,” said Rick Tumlinson, Deep Space chairman.
After the FireFlies complete their mission, “DragonFlies” will launch. Starting in 2016, these 70-pound spacecraft will bring samples from the asteroids over the course of two to four years. The samples won’t all go to one purpose: officials said that the company will use some to determine the best mining asteroids, while others will be sold to collectors and researchers of such rare space rocks. Mining is then slated to begin sometime after, likely within the next tens years, according to the company.
It’s likely that corporate sponsorship will make these missions publicly available. Live feeds of the DragonFly and FireFly missions from Mission Control will allow anyone to observe these deep space missions and Deep Space said they are currently in talks with companies around the world, including Red Bull and Google,
The resources will be used in constructing off-Earth communication satellites, and later solar power collecting space stations. The MicroGravity Foundry, a patent-pending 3D printer, will assist in these building projects from the asteroid-mined materials.
“The MicroGravity Foundry is the first 3D printer that creates high-density, high-strength metal components even in zero gravity. Other metal 3D printers sinter powdered metal, which requires a gravity field and leaves a porous structure, or they use low-melting point metals with less strength.”
While the plans sounds like something out of a plot of a science fiction movie, the move by the California-based company to begin mining asteroid reflects a similar one made by another group, Planetary Resources. The latter is backed by some of the biggest names in tech, including Larry Page of Google, Eric Schmidt of Google, and Texan billionaire Ross Perot Jr.
While the project is widely seen as one of the most ambitious of all the space endeavors, it does have its share of critics. A 2011 report by the Keck Institute for Space Studies concluded that more than $2.5 billion would need to be spent to retrieve just a single 500-ton asteroid, raising questions as to how Deep Space will overcome such obstacles.