Space mining has long been a staple of sci-fi stories. Soon, however, it could be a very real possibility.
The space mining company Deep Space Industries (DSI), formed in 2013, is aiming to develop spacecraft that can scope out and harvest resources from asteroids.
It’s currently seeking $20 million to develop its first series of vehicles, the Firefly, a small, 25 kg (55 lb) craft the company says will be used to remotely probe the asteroids to detect information about what they’re made out of and how difficult it would be to land on them.
According to an LA Times report from an unofficial company event on Jan. 22, DSI hopes to launch their first class of vehicles as early as 2015.
Later, it intends to build spacecraft able to capture asteroids and bring them to low-Earth orbit (LEO, between 99 miles and 1,200 miles above Earth) for study and experimental processing.
Its final goal is to build harvesters that can latch on to asteroids and produce thousands of tons of metals. Potentially, they could also create their own propellant and water from ice on the asteroid, breaking down water to create oxygen and hydrogen to make rocket fuel. DSI hopes to ship these commodities to satellites in LEO, and eventually to Earth once costs drop.
Illustration of space mining in action courtesy of Brian Versteeg via Deep Space Industries.
Another space mining company, Planetary Resources, was founded in 2012, and has like DSI the goal of “bringing the natural resources of space within humanity’s economic sphere of influence,” according to its website. The project has the support of director James Cameron and Google executives Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, among others.
To test the technology necessary for its plan to send out many small probing vehicles, Planetary Resources has developed a small space telescope, the Arkyd, that’s intended to be publicly accessible for a fee. The project is crowdfunded via Kickstarter and has reached over three quarters of its goal.
Is space mining viable?
A 2012 study by the California Institute of Technology’s Keck Institute for Space Studies states that with technology that could be available within a decade, it’s possible to capture a 7 m (22 feet) diameter, 500,000 kg asteroid and bring it to lunar orbit. Due to much lower gravity, the propulsion power required to move such a weight would be much lower.
It’s widely known that asteroids contain vast quantities of metals that are scarce on Earth, including gold and platinum, with platinum-rich ones reaching a density of 10-20 times higher than the best mines on Earth, according to an article on MIT’s website.
However, economists such as Lawrence White at George Mason University have warned bringing these quantities to Earth would likely tilt the supply-to-demand ratio and cause the value of the metals to plummet, negating any profitability.
For now, at least, the most likely goal for space mining seems to be collecting ice to create water and rocket fuel for vehicles in LEO. But metals collected from asteroids may one day be used in additive manufacturing – also known as 3D printing – devices to create spacecraft components.
A study by NASA, published in 1980, even suggested building machines that could self-replicate, then collect materials, a process made even more viable by recent advances in 3D printing.
But no matter which way the development goes, with billions being invested, space mining will likely happen sooner rather than later.