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Deep Space Industries plans robotic fleet to mine asteroids

Jenny Winder, News Writer
Jan 23, 2013, 0:00 UTC

Sen—Deep Space Industries (DSI) has announced its plans to mine asteroids for metals and other materials. The company set out its vision to use mined resources to improve and enrich life on Earth and to further the human exploration of space.

The venture plans to use mined resources to construct large communications platforms to replace communications satellites, and solar power stations to beam carbon-free energy to consumers on Earth within ten years. It will also harvest platinum group metals for use on Earth.

The world's first fleet of commercial asteroid-prospecting cubesat spacecraft will hitch rides on the launches of larger spacecraft to keep costs down.

"FireFly spacecraft will have a mass of about 55 pounds (25 kilograms) and will first be launched in 2015 on journeys of two to six months. DSI will be building a small fleet of the spacecraft using innovative miniature technologies, and working with NASA and other companies and groups to identify targets of opportunity." said Rick Tumlinson, DSI Chairman.

Deep Space Industries Dragonfly concept

Artist illustration of Deep Space Industries' Dragonfly concept. Image credit: DSI

In 2016 DSI will launch its larger 70lb DragonFly robotic spacecraft on two to four year, round-trip expeditions. These robots will return 60 to 150 lbs of samples to determine mining targets. Other samples, with their original in-space composition and structure preserved, will be rare specimens that can be sold to the research and collectors market. By combining science, prospecting and sponsorship DSI hopes to lower costs for exploration and engage the public.

"The public will participate in FireFly and DragonFly missions via live feeds from Mission Control, online courses in asteroid mining sponsored by corporate marketers, and other innovative ways to open the doors wide," said CEO David Gump.

Deep Space Industries harvestor concept

Artist illustration of Deep Space Industries' harvestor concept. Image credit: DSI

None of the processes needed are hard, according to the management, who consider the basic technology is available and just needs adapting to work in microgravity. They make the point that even new technology that may be needed will not depend on fundamentally new physics.

A key compomponent of DSI's plans is their patent-pending "MicroGravity Foundry", a 3D printer to transform raw asteroid material into complex metal parts or even recycle old nickel parts into new components.

"The MicroGravity Foundry is the first 3D printer that creates high-density high-strength metal components even in zero gravity" said Stephen Covey, a co-Founder of DSI and inventor of the process.

Deep Space Industries MicroGravity Foundry

DSI's Microgravity Foundry. Image credit: DSI

They hope to make crewed Mars expeditions less expensive by refuelling in space using asteroid-derived propellant, made by extracting asteroid water and splitting it into its constituent hydrogen and oxygen.

Of the 9,500 or so Near Earth Asteroids curently known, about 850 are bigger than 1 km, and about 1,700 are easier to get to than landing on the Moon. They have a very diverse range of compositions.

"Using resources harvested in space is the only way to afford permanent space development," said Gump. "More than 900 new asteroids that pass near Earth are discovered every year."

DSI estimates that virtually all recovered mass from asteroids will be of value. A large market for DSI will be producing fuel for communications satellites. Low-cost asteroid propellant delivered in orbit to commsats will extend their working lifetimes, with each extra month worth $5 million to $8 million per satellite.

"Mining asteroids for rare metals alone isn't economical, but makes senses if you already are processing them for volatiles and bulk metals for in-space uses" said Mark Sonter, a member of the DSI Board of Directors.

"Turning asteroids into propellant and building materials damages no ecospheres since they are lifeless rocks left over from the formation of the solar system. Several hundred thousand that cross near Earth are available"

"We will only be visitors in space until we learn how to live off the land there" concluded Tumlinson. "This is the Deep Space mission – to find, harvest and process the resources of space to help save our civilization and support the expansion of humanity beyond the Earth."