Last year, a new company named Planetary Resources announced seemingly audacious plans to privately prospect and mine asteroids. This past Tuesday, in Santa Monica, California, another company made a similar announcement.
While they claim to have the same overall goals, there are some significant differences between Planetary Resources (PR) and the newcomer, Deep Space Industries (DSI). When the former was announced last April, the biggest news was its billionaire backers from Microsoft and Google. In contrast, the purpose of last week’s announcement was, in the words of CEO (and commercial space veteran) David Gump, “…to go public so that potential corporate sponsors could find us.” They claim to have some investment, but clearly not yet enough to fund their ambitious plans.
Another difference is that while PR is focusing on remote sensing of its asteroid targets for now, with telescopes in low earth orbit (one of which they described in detail the day before DSI’s announcement), DSI plans to send out actual small probes (called “Fireflies”) to survey and assay them with flybys, starting as soon as 2015, funding permitting. These will be six-month trips, but they have more advanced plans a year later for larger probes, called “Dragonflies,” that will actually return samples of up to a hundred pounds, on multi-year missions. They are hoping to fund the missions with corporate sponsorships. Eventually, after they’ve collected enough data to identify promising targets for mining, they’ll send out much larger spacecraft called “Harvesters” to reap the wealth.
But their plans go beyond mere mining. They intend to be a space manufacturing company, and they have plans for what they call a “Microgravity Foundry” — a 3-D printer that can process materials in weightlessness. The goal is “asteroid bits in, useful products out.” The Foundry is in a conceptual phase, but they have patents, and are getting small business contracts to develop and prove it out.
But their goals go beyond manufacturing, to planetary defense as well. They hope to be able to characterize the bodies, in terms of composition and nature, to provide advice on the best way to divert them if they are in a threatening orbit. As Gump says:
The intent is to bring several of the smaller ones back to Earth orbit where we can process them at our leisure. We have to know whether they’re solid or a loose rubble pile. That’s also important if you’re thinking in terms of planetary defense — you want to know what you’re shooting at.
Their proposed initial market is propellant manufactured from water-based asteroids, with both commercial and government customers. The former is communications satellite owners, to whom it is worth millions of dollars per year in revenue to extend the operating life of their birds, and the latter is NASA, which needs large amounts of propellant for extraplanetary missions, particularly if it wants to do more ambitious things like its own manned asteroid or Mars missions.