Deep Space Industries, a private aerospace company, has been making a big splash in the news lately. Alongside SpaceX, they have been pioneering a new age in space exploration, where costs are reduced and private companies are picking up the slack. And in their latest bid to claim a share of space, the company announced plans late in January to begin asteroid prospecting operations by 2015.
For some time, the concept of sending spaceships to mine asteroids and haul ore has been explored as a serious option. Within the asteroid belt that lies between Mars and Jupiter, countless tons of precious metals, carbon, silicates, and basaltic minerals. If humanity could tap a fraction of a fraction of that mineral wealth, it would be able to supply Earth’s manufacturing needs indefinitely, without all the harmful pollutants or run off caused by mining.
So to tap this potential goldmine (literally!) known as the Asteroid Belt, DSI plans to launch a fleet of mini spacecraft into solar orbit to identify potential targets near to Earth that would be suitable to mine. Lacking the resources of some of the bigger players in the space rush, DSI’s probes will ride-share on the launch of larger communications satellites and get a discounted delivery to space.
Initially, a group of 25kg (55 pounds) cubesats with the awesome designation “Firefly” will be launched on a journey lasting from two to six months in 2015. Then, in 2016, the 32 kilograms (70 pound) DragonFly spacecraft will begin their two-to-four-year expeditions and return with up to 68 kilograms (150 pounds) of bounty each. Beyond this, DSI has some truly ambitious plans to establish a foundry amongst the asteroids.
That’s another thing about the Belt. Not only is it an incredibly rich source of minerals, its asteroids would make an ideal place for relocating much of Earth’s heavy industry. Automated facilities, anchored to the surface and processing metals and other materials on site would also reduce the burden on Earth’s environment. Not only would there be no air to befoul with emissions, but the processes used would generate no harmful pollutants.
In DSI’s plan, the foundry would use a patent-pending nickel gas process developed by one of DSI’s co-founders, Stephen Covey, known as “sintering”. This is the same process that is being considered by NASA to build a Moon Base in the Shackleton Crater near the Moon’s south pole. Relying on this same technology, automated foundries could turn ore into finished products with little more than microwave radiation and a 3D printer, which could then be shipped back to Earth.
Naturally, DSI will have plenty of competition down the road. The biggest comes from Google-backed Planetary Resources which staked it claim to an asteroid last April. Much like DSI, they hope to be able to mine everything from water to fuel as well as minerals and rare earths. And of course, SpaceX, which has the most impressive track record thus far, is likely to be looking to the Asteroid Belt before long.
And Golden Spike, the company that is promising commercial flight to the Moon by 2020 is sure to not be left behind. And as for Virgin Galactic, well… Richard Branson didn’t get crazy, stinking rich by letting opportunities pass him by. And given the size and scope of the Belt itself, there’s likely to be no shortage of companies trying to stake a claim, and more than enough for everyone.
So get on board ye capitalist prospectors! A new frontier awaits beyond the rim of Mars…