Less than a year after by Planetary Resources announced its plans to mine asteroids in outer space (me.smenet.org, April 24) a second company, Deep Space Industries, announced its own plans to explore for metals and fuel sources in the “final frontier.”
Deep Space Industries says it wants to start sending miniature scout probes, dubbed “Fireflies,” on one-way missions to near-Earth asteroids as soon as 2015. Larger probes, “Dragonflies,” that will bring back 50- to 100-lb samples from prospective targets could be on their way by 2016, company CEO David Gump told reporters on Jan. 22.
The company will focus on asteroids that come within 50 million km (31 miles) of Earth with the goal of extracting metals, water and compounds that can be used to make spacecraft fuel. Gump said the ability to produce fuel in space would be a boon for NASA, as the U.S. space agency shifts its focus toward exploring deeper into the solar system.
As much as 90 percent of the weight of a prospective months-long Mars mission could be fuel — and it costs between $5,000 and $10,000/lb to put anything into space.
“If NASA can launch just the hardware and tank up in orbit, where the fuel is cheap, that means we could get to the Red Planet a lot sooner than we currently expect,” Gump said. That could also allow commercial satellite companies to extend the life of hardware that’s now written off when fuel for maneuvering thrusters runs out.
“If you give it one more month of active work in orbit, it’s worth about $5 (million) to $8 million to the owner of that satellite,” Gump said.
Executives said they’re also developing a foundry designed to produce metal parts from nickel, an element abundant in asteroids, and operate in space, and a class of “Harvestor” craft to extract valuable material from the asteroids.
John Mankins, the company’s chief technology officer, told CNN that its plans are based on existing technology, not “magic.”
“You don’t see any space elevators. You don’t see antigravity. You don’t see warp drive,” said Mankins, a former NASA scientist. “There is really nothing the business plan Deep Space Industries is using that cannot be done with the technological research that has already been accomplished in laboratories across the planet.”
NASA landed a probe on the 20-mile-long asteroid 433 Eros in 2000, while Japan’s space agency landed its Hayabusa spacecraft on the roughly 1,700-ft asteroid Itokawa in 2007 and returned it to Earth with small samples in 2010.
Another issue is that of legal rights. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty provides for “free access to all areas of celestial bodies” by any nation, but isn’t clear about commercial rights, said Henry Hertzfeld, who researches space policy at George Washington University. Until that’s cleared up, that adds risk to any business venture, he said.
But Deep Space Industries Chairman Rick Tumlinson, a longtime booster of private space efforts, said the company sees itself as the 21st-century version of the “settlers and shopkeepers” who followed the Lewis and Clark expedition into the American West.