US space company to mine asteroids for precious metals
Washington: US space company Deep Space Industries has announced that it will send a fleet of asteroid-prospecting spacecraft out into the solar system to hunt for resources to accelerate space development to benefit Earth.
These "FireFly" spacecraft utilize low-cost CubeSat components and get discounted delivery to space by ride-sharing on the launch of larger communications satellites.
"This is the first commercial campaign to explore the small asteroids that pass by Earth," said Deep Space Chairman Rick Tumlinson (who signed up the world's first space tourist, led the team that took over the Mir space station, was a Founding Trustee of the X Prize, and Founded Orbital Outfitters, the world's first commercial space suit company.)
"Using low cost technologies, and combining the legacy of our space program with the innovation of today's young high tech geniuses, we will do things that would have been impossible just a few years ago," he added.
FireFlies mass about 55 lb (25 kg) and will first be launched in 2015 on journeys of two to six months. Deep Space 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.
Bringing back asteroid materials is only a step on the way to much bigger things for DSI. The company has a patent-pending technology called the MicroGravity Foundry to transform raw asteroid material into complex metal parts. The MicroGravity Foundry is a 3D printer that uses lasers to draw patterns in a nickel-charged gas medium, causing the nickel to be deposited in precise patterns.
Senior leaders at NASA have been briefed on DSI's technologies, which would make eventual crewed Mars expeditions less expensive through the use of asteroid-derived propellant.
Missions would require fewer launches if the fuel to reach Mars were added in space from the volatiles in asteroids. Mars missions also would be safer with a MicroGravity Foundry on board to print replacements for broken parts, or to create brand new parts invented after the expedition was on its way to the Red Planet.
In a decade, Deep Space will be harvesting asteroids for metals and other building materials, to construct large communications platforms to replace communications satellites, and later solar power stations to beam carbon-free energy to consumers on Earth.
As DSI refines asteroids for in-space markets, it also will harvest platinum group metals for terrestrial uses, such as pollution control devices.