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Firm aims to mine asteroids to refuel, build metal parts in space

January 22, 2013|By Amina Khan
  • An artist's concept of an asteroid fuel harvester. Deep Space Industries plans to send spacecraft to asteroids with the intent to eventually mine them for resources.
An artist's concept of an asteroid fuel harvester. Deep Space Industries… (Bryan Versteeg / Deep Space…)

Swarms of spacecraft may soon be mining asteroids for fuel and minerals and building spare parts in space, if a new private space venture has its way.

Harvesting the resources available in the giant space rocks flying around the solar system could allow spacecraft to build parts when they break or refill their tanks on the long trek to Mars, Deep Space Industries officials said in a news conference Tuesday at the Museum of Flying in Santa Monica.

Deep Space hopes to launch small, low-cost spacecraft called fireflies by 2015. Weighing about 55 pounds, fireflies would use existing technology and hitch rides with larger communications satellites being launched into space. These one-way trips would last from two to six months, depending on the distance to the target asteroid, and would cost customers $20 million – with a significant profit margin built in, according to Chairman Rick Tumlinson.

“It is important to us to be able to demonstrate some sort of early revenue coming in,” Tumlinson said.

In 2016, the venture plans to launch larger spacecraft called dragonflies, which would weigh 60 to 150 pounds and embark on two-to-four-year missions that would pick up asteroid samples and return them to Earth for analysis.

Eventually, the company hopes to be able to mine these asteroids for resources, both for metals and for fuel, Tumlinson said. Pulling volatiles out of asteroids in space would allow spacecraft to refuel on their way to the Red Planet, and mining metal would allow them to build parts in space or replace damaged ones.

The company is working on the technology for that last goal, developing 3-D printer technology that uses a laser to draw patterns with nickel, allowing them to build in microgravity.

The company is looking for more investors, and deciding on where to make their permanent home on Earth.

“We would love to be here, for example, near JPL,” Tumlinson said. (Jet Propulsion Laboratory is also home to NASA's Near-Earth Object Program.)

The announcement comes amid growing interest in the resources – and threats – contained in the asteroids that inhabit the solar system. President Obama has directed NASA to aim to send an astronaut to an asteroid by 2025. The B612 foundation last year announced plans to launch a telescope to search out asteroids that threaten to crash into Earth.

Deep Space’s plan, however, may provide a two-pronged solution: Destroy dangerous asteroids by mining the heck out of them.

“It’s a gold rush, not a ‘cower in the caves and hope they don’t strike,’ ” said board member Stephen Covey, who invented the 3D-printing foundry the company hopes to use. “I forget who said it, but – if the dinosaurs had a space program, they’d still be here.”

Follow me on Twitter @aminawrite.

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