Mining on asteroids is the ultimate high-risk, high-reward venture. While there are undoubtedly billions — some say trillions — of valuable minerals and metals in near-Earth asteroids, numerous questions remain about the utility of harvesting them. How much technology is needed to identify asteroids and extract the materials? How difficult will it be to return them to Earth or other desired destinations? And how much will the upfront cost be?
A few companies, such as Planetary Resources, have started answering these questions, and it seems that the initial response is not entirely positive. The company has decided to place its initial focus on Earth observation rather than asteroid mining in space. But another asteroid company, Deep Space Industries, seems to be persevering. On Tuesday, that company announced its intent to fly the world’s first commercial interplanetary mining mission, Prospector-1.
According to the company’s new timeline, Deep Space Industries plans to launch the Prospector-X mission into low Earth orbit in 2017 as a technology testbed for further development of low-cost exploration spacecraft. Then, “before the end of this decade,” the company would launch Prospector-1 to rendezvous with a near-Earth asteroid and investigate its value as a source of mineral resources.
“Now we can say with confidence that we have the right technology, the right team and the right plan to carry out this historic mission,” said Rick Tumlinson, chairman and co-founder of Deep Space Industries. Prospector-X mission, Prospector-1, will be the next step towards harvesting asteroid resources.
The company says its small 50kg spacecraft will use a water-based propulsion system that expels superheated water vapor to generate thrust. Such a system was chosen because the first product that mining companies want to extract from asteroids is water. They hope to resell this water to NASA or other space agencies involved in deep space exploration because it can be broken down into liquid hydrogen and oxygen, both of which are powerful rocket propellants. By using a water-based propulsion system, the company’s spacecraft can also refuel on the fly. Such an ethos is part of the new space vision of “living off the land” as humans and machines stretch further out into space.
It’s far from clear whether Deep Space Industries will succeed with its Prospector missions or find a way to ever make a profit from space travel. But it’s good to see some speculative miners go out and give it a try. A “gold rush” of space resources would certainly lower the cost of accessing space and jump-start its colonization.