But ultimately, as denoted by their name (Deep Space Industries, plural), they hope to become the space equivalent of Pittsburgh or Detroit — a location for heavy manufacturing close to their source of raw materials, just as those industrial cities once relied on the Iron Range of Minnesota to feed the foundries and factories of the upper Midwest. But instead of raw steel and cars, one of their ultimate goals is to generate clean energy for use in both space and on earth. John Mankins, the chief technical officer of the new company, worked for NASA for many years as one of their chief technologists, and has done extensive work on concepts for collecting solar energy in space and beaming it back to the planet, via microwave or laser, to provide a continuous, baseload power source.
Is it technically and economically feasible?
“There is no magic here,” said Mankins at the press conference. “It’s all existing tech [for the Fireflies and Dragonflies] — it’s just never been demonstrated beyond earth orbit.” The probes will be based on Cubesat technology, which is a new concept for microsatellites that has allowed universities to build and launch their own payloads into earth orbit for costs on the order of only a million dollars or so. For deep space missions, no longer protected by the earth’s magnetic field, more radiation shielding will be required, but functionally, most of the capabilities needed have been demonstrated, at least for the flybys. Whether or not their more ambitious plans will pan out remains to be seen, considering the many hurdles that space solar power faces, in terms of the scale of the project and the environmental and public-relations hurdles. But as their web site indicates, they are dreamers, and bold ones.
Is there room for two such companies? At the press conference, I asked if they saw themselves as complementary to, or in pure competition with PR.
“We love Planetary Resources,” said Rick Tumlinson, chairman of the board. “One company may be a fluke, but two companies showing up, that’s the beginning of an industry.”
Gump followed up. “It’s a very big solar system. Two companies are not going to be able to go after all the opportunities out there.”
I noted at my blog that if we’re ever to build a Death Star, it will require capabilities like those planned by DSI, PR, and others. But they offer the promise of much more useful things, and they won’t be the last.