Space prospectors look to mine asteroids, build human colonies

Deep Space Industries looks to mine Near-Earth asteroids for resources

A new company is looking to launch spacecraft to mine asteroids and one day act as an outer space gas station and an oasis for human colonies in space.

Deep Space Industries Inc. announced Tuesday that it hopes to launch a fleet of small spacecraft, dubbed Fireflies, in 2015 to begin taking images of some of the thousands of near-Earth asteroids. Then in 2016, the company is scheduled to launch another round of spacecraft, these dubbed Dragonflies, to grab asteroid samples and return them to Earth.

If all goes as planned, it would begin commercially harvesting resources from asteroids around 2020, according to CEO David Gump. Then it hopes to take those mined resources and turn them into products using space-based 3-D printers. The company also hopes to one day build communications satellites and solar power stations in orbit, possibly as a way to provide fuel, air and water for long-term deep space missions.

While the company's ambitions might sound far-fetched, it has pulled in some notables from the space industry.

Chairman of the Board Rick Tumlinson, for example, led the commercial team that took over the Mir Space Station as a commercial operation. Gump co-founded three commercial space-related companies and was chosen by NASA to advise the agency on technology for a return to the moon. And CTO John Mankins spent 25 years working for NASA on flight projects and space mission operations.

"Using resources harvested in space is the only way to afford permanent space development," said Gump. "More than 900 new asteroids that pass near Earth are discovered every year. They can be like the Iron Range of Minnesota was for the Detroit car industry last century - a key resource located near where it was needed. In this case, metals and fuel from asteroids can expand the in-space industries of this century."

To prospect in space, the company will use technology that already has been developed, according to Mankins.

"You don't see any magic. You don't see space elevators. You don't see warp drive," he said during a news conference today to talk up the company's plans. "You don't see anything that cannot be done with technology research that has already been accomplished all over this planet. It may not have been used in space, but the fundamental technologies already are at hand."

And while he said the company will be testing new NASA technology for the space agency, it's also looking for assistance getting their project off the ground.

"Our planet sits in a sea of resources. It's time someone seized the opportunity," said Mankins. "We're looking for help. We're looking for people with ideas. We're looking for people who want to invest. We're all about moving ahead. It's a risk but that's what life is about."

According to the company, the FireFly spacecraft will only weigh about 55 pounds and is being designed for journeys lasting between two and six months. The larger, 70lb DragonFlies, which are expected to bring back 60 to 150 pounds of asteroid samples, are being built for round-trip journeys of two to four years.

"My smartphone has more computing power than they had on the Apollo moon missions," said Tumlinson. "We can make amazing machines smaller, cheaper, and faster than ever before. Imagine a production line of FireFlies, cocked and loaded and ready to fly out to examine any object that gets near the Earth."

While the idea of prospecting for metals and other resources in space may sound like a sci-fi movie, Deep Space Industries actually already has competition in the asteroid-mining business. A company called Planetary Resources announced in April that it plans to plan mine Near-Earth Asteroids for raw materials such as water and precious metals.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

See more by Sharon Gaudin on Computerworld.com.

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