Once a wacky idea, commercial asteroid exploration has become a race, with the launch of a second company focused on mining near-Earth space rocks. The newly launched firm plans to survey asteroids, tap them for resources and shape the raw materials into products using 3D printers in space.
Deep Space Industries (DSI) of McLean, Virginia, held a press event at the Santa Monica Museum of Flight in California on Tuesday. "Our business plan is to get into this field as it begins, and it is beginning today," said founder and chairman Rick Tumlinson.
To illustrate the company's ambition, he evoked 19th century pioneers, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who led the first transcontinental US expedition to the Pacific Ocean. "We want to build on the Lewis and Clark legacy of our government space programme and open it up for the settlers and shopkeepers."
The announcement follows the first commercial plan to mine asteroids for precious metals and other resources, announced last April by Planetary Resources of Bellevue, Washington.
Asteroids are full of potentially valuable materials, including nickel, as well as water and gases that could be used to make fuel for future space missions. But much of their value comes from the fact that they're already in space.
"A typical tonne of asteroidal rock is worth $1 million in orbit ? but only $4000 on Earth," said Mark Sonter, a mining consultant in Australia and a member of DSI's board of directors. "If we can get it in space where we want it to be used, it's potentially extremely valuable material."
DSI hopes to eventually help build, fuel and operate satellites in orbit, without ever bringing the components back to Earth.
As a first step, DSI plans to launch three laptop-sized satellites called FireFlies in 2015 to observe near-Earth asteroids and identify which ones would be the best targets for mining. In 2016, it plans to launch DragonFly spacecraft to bring samples weighing between 23 and 45 kilograms back to Earth.
Then in 2020, the company hopes to start harvesting asteroids for useful goods, particularly the raw products of fuel. DSI expects its first clients to be the owners of the communications satellites that require propellant to stay in their designated orbits.
DSI is also developing a space-based 3D printer called the MicroGravity Foundry, which would grind up asteroids, separate out the useful bits and fuse them into manufactured goods. The firm also wants to build orbiting platforms that can beam high-speed internet and cheap solar energy to anywhere on Earth.
The company did not announce how much money they already have, or who their initial investors are. "One reason for having the press conference is to become findable by additional investors," said DSI CEO David Gump.
The main competition has famously deep pockets. Planetary Resources is backed by Google's Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, and former Microsoft chief architect Charles Simonyi. They have a similar mission: to send space telescopes to spot asteroids bearing precious metals, and to mine the best candidates. Planetary Resources took a step towards this goal on Monday, unveiling a prototype asteroid-hunting telescope, Arkyd 100.
"Having competition is generally good and it also validates the market," says Alan Stern, a former NASA scientist now working with several firms focused on lunar tourism and mining.
But Tim Spahr, director of the asteroid and comet watching Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, still believes the wannabe miners are underestimating the difficulty of the task. "I remain sceptical, but would love to be wrong," he told New Scientist.
Watch a video of DSI's announcement
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