Last year Planetary Resources made a big splash when the startup company announced plans to develop a series of spacecraft to prospect and, eventually, extract resources from near Earth asteroids. Now another company plans to get into this long-term market, although many key details about their plans remain to be revealed.
Deep Space Industries (DSI) will formally announce their asteroid mining plans at a press event at 10 am PST (1 pm EST) Tuesday in Santa Monica, California, an event that will be webcast live. The DSI team does include some familiar names for those who have followed past space entrepreneurial efforts, including Rick Tumlinson, chairman of DSI; and David Gump, who is CEO. The company’s team also features Geoffrey Notkin, star of the TV show “Meteorite Men”, although his role with the company isn’t specified.
DSI plans to follow a path similar to Planetary Resources, with a fleet of small spacecraft to prospect asteroids. FireFlies, weighing 25 kilograms, will launch starting in 2015 on two- to six-month missions to study asteroids, while 32-kilogram DragonFly spacecraft will launch starting in 2016 on two- to four-year missions to return samples weighing up to twice as much as the spacecraft itself.
Those sample return missions will be followed by full-scale resource extraction efforts. DSI says it has a “patent-pending technology” called the MicroGravity Foundry, a 3-D printer that can convert raw asteroid (presumably metallic) material into complex metal parts. The company is also interested in extracting volatile materials from asteroids to use as propellant—a key focus of Planetary Resources as well—and has an NDA with an unspecified “aerospace company” to discuss how to potentially work together to use such propellants to refuel communications satellites. (A problem here is that while some asteroids are rich in water ice and similar volatiles, many satellites use hydrazine in their maneuvering thrusters.)
While the press release goes into great detail about their long-term plans for missions and the various resources that can be obtained from asteroids, they say virtually nothing about the company’s finances. The company doesn’t disclose how much money it has raised or who its investors are. (By contrast, Planetary Resources emphasized at its announcement the A-list investors it has, including Google’s Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, although it didn’t disclose how much they raised.) DSI does state in its release that it “is looking for customers and sponsors who want to be a part of creating this new space economy,” and mentions it’s open to the idea of corporate sponsorships for individual FireFly missions.
If DSI is serious about starting to launch spacecraft in 2015, it presumably has already laid significant groundwork, including establishing facilities, hiring engineers and other staff, and making at least initial contacts with launch services providers, details missing from its press release. How much progress they’ve made in those areas that they’re willing to reveal, particularly at the press conference later today, will make it clear how serious a competitor they are to Planetary Resources. Both companies, though, face the challenges of making progress in a field—asteroid mining—that still seems like science fiction.