Deep Space Industries Joins Ranks of Asteroid Seeking Companies

Deep Space Industries Joins Ranks of Asteroid Seeking Companies

Deep Space Industries (DSI) is joining the ranks of private companies trying to learn more about — and in some cases extract resources from — asteroids.

At a press conference today, Rick Tumlinson, David Gump and associates revealed a three-prong plan involving the launch of two classes of small spacecraft — FireFly and DragonFly — to respectively search for and return material from asteroids, plus a 3D printer called MicroGravity Foundry to turn asteroid material into metal parts.

Asteroids are of interest to diverse communities: entrepreneurs interested in profiting from their natural resources, which could be brought back to Earth or used to build or maintain space-based facilities; planetary defense experts worried about how to protect planet Earth from a potentially catastrophic collision; and scientists trying to understand the origin and evolution of the solar system.  President Obama also decided that an as-yet-unidentified asteroid should be the next destination for U.S. human spaceflight as a step to sending humans to Mars.

Today’s announcement is the third privately-funded asteroid effort to kick off in less than a year.  Although the goals can overlap to some extent, generally two are in the entrepreneurship category and one in planetary defense.

In April 2012, Planetary Resources Inc. announced similar plans to search for and mine asteroids.   Planetary Resources is focused first on building a small space telescope for launch into low Earth orbit (LEO) to search for asteroids.  It is to be followed by an Interceptor and a Rendezvous Prospector.  When asked today about potential competition, Tumlinson said there is room for many companies and the fact that two exist already means that a new industry is starting.

The B612 Foundation’s goal, announced in June 2012, is not prospecting, but planetary defense.  The foundation plans to launch a space telescope, Sentinel, into a special orbit around the Sun where it can catalog a greater number of Near Earth Objects (NEOs) – asteroids and comets — than can be observed using ground-based telescopes.   Earth has been impacted by large asteroids in the past – the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago is attributed to the after-effects of such a collision – and near-misses of asteroids are frequently reported in the press.   B612’s idea is that if potentially hazardous NEOs are located enough in advance, there may be time to deflect them.   B612 is not trying to find investors with the long term goal of selling a product and making a profit.  It wants to attract philanthropists to donate the money for Sentinel in the same way that philanthropists historically have funded ground-based telescopes such as the Keck Observatory and the Allen Telescope Array.

DSI provided few details today about how its efforts are being funded, but its near-term plan is to launch three cubesats, called FireFlies, in 2015 to travel to an asteroid and send back images and other data.  Those are one-way missions that should take about 6 months.  The next year, DSI would launch the first DragonFly on a 3-4 year mission to return a sample to Earth.   They were not specific about how the probes would be launched other than saying they plan to “ride-share” on launches conducted for others.   Tumlinson said a DSI customer could buy a trio of the 25 kilogram FireFlies – three to ensure mission success – for $20 million, but he and Gump declined to reveal how much they cost.  Tumlinson said only that the price included a “good profit.”

Eventually, DSI plans to be in the business of harvesting resources from asteroids and running them through the MicroGravity Foundry 3D printer that would create tools and parts from the nickel.  DSI also plans to extract water and other resources that could be made into propellant to refuel on-orbit communications satellites, for example.  The company’s plans get more elaborate after that.

For the near-term, it is hoping to sell data and samples to the government and to obtain development contracts from the government.  Tumlinson said this is a “huge opportunity for us to create a new partnership with government,” adding that they have met with top officials at NASA and the White House already.  While speaking eagerly about individuals so wealthy that they could afford to buy a trio of FireFlies with just the interest that accrued on their accounts during the timespan of the press conference, Tumlinson allowed only that “we hope to hear from them.”

These non-governmental efforts are all on top of government-funded projects to catalog and study asteroids for scientific reasons.  NASA has sent several missions to asteroids, the most recent of which, Dawn, just completed an encounter with the asteroid Vesta and is now enroute to the dwarf planet Ceres.  A NASA asteroid sample-return mission, OSIRIS-Rex, is scheduled for launch in 2016.   The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) was first to return a sample of an asteroid with its Hayabusa spacecraft in 2010.  JAXA plans to launch Hayabusa2 in 2014 to return a sample from a different type of asteroid.

The European Space Agency (ESA) is working on a proposed Asteroid Impact Mission (AIM) that it briefed to NASA’s Small Bodies Assessment Group last week.  ESA is investigating potential collaboration with the Applied Physics Lab at Johns Hopkins University to turn it into an Asteroid Impact Deflection Assessment (AIDA) mission.

President Obama’s decision to send astronauts to an asteroid in 2025 in preparation for human trips to orbit Mars in the 2030s remains controversial.  The President decided there is no need to return astronauts to the Moon, but a test mission to an intermediate distance is still required before sending them on a 2-year journey to Mars.  Only one asteroid has been identified so far as being in a useful location in 2025, however, and other doubts have arisen about the feasibility of such a mission absent at least one robotic precursor to characterize the target before humans arrive.  That would add time and cost, and a recent National Research Council report also found that the asteroid-first concept is not winning support within or outside NASA.

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