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.
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.