Photo: Deep Space Industries
More than 900 new near-Earth asteroids are discovered each year.At least two companies, Planetary Resources and more recently, Deep Space Industries, have announced plans to take advantage of these massive rock clumps, which are in seemingly endless supply and believed to be the source of great mineral wealth.
The asteroid making a record-close approach to Earth this week could be worth up to $195 billion in fuel and metal, according to Deep Space Industries.
Unfortunately, asteroid 2012 DA14 is not a good target because its orbit is tilted relative to Earth, requiring too much energy to chase down.
That doesn’t bother Deep Space. There are thousands of other asteroids floating out in space just waiting to be harvested.
Here’s Deep Space’s master plan to find, capture, and process asteroid materials for use in space and on Earth.
Deep Space Industries is planning to launch the first fleet of asteroid-hunting spacecraft in 2015. Laptop-size FireFlies will be sent on one-way missions, lasting two to six months, to scout out potential asteroids for harvesting.
At this point, the only information we have about asteroids comes from telescopes and meteorites, the name for a piece of asteroid that reaches Earth's surface. The drawback is that these sources really only give scientists an idea of what an asteroid's surface is like; scientists still aren't certain about their structure or how fast they rotate.
The 55-pound probes will do flybys of smaller asteroids taking up to 100 photographs as they pass in order to distinguish loose rubble piles from solid bodies made of valuable minerals like nickel, iron or platinum.
The idea is to use existing cubesat technology, a type of small satellite that uses off-the-shelf electronic components.
It will cost $20 million to get the first fleet of FireFlies built and sent into space, hitching a ride on the launch of larger communication satellites. Money will come from investors, customers at space agencies like NASA and corporate sponsors.
One year later, slightly bigger spacecraft known as Dragon Flies will go out on two- to three-year missions and bring back asteroid samples so that scientists back home can analyse their composition.
Deep space will buy parts for the spacecrafts from other manufactures and do customisation themselves. The company is currently looking at Houston, the Cape Canaveral area and the Southern California area as possible factory locations.
The first market will be in space. Deep Space says it will be turning asteroid material into metal parts and harvesting water (in the form of ice), which can be broken down to make rocket fuel, within a decade.
Deep Space is already working on a refrigerator-sized 3D-Printer, called the Microgravity Foundry, that can take raw, crushed asteroid and turn it into metal parts or tools.
Manufacturing parts in space saves money since the cost to send almost anything into high-Earth orbit, from fuel to a bottle of soda, is about $10,000 a pound, according to Gump.
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