A bounteous final frontier?

On January 22, 2013, an American company named Deep Space Industries (DSi) announced plans to launch two spacecrafts, in 2015 as a piggybacking payload named FireFly to prospect for near-Earth asteroids, and in 2016, to mine one and return a small sample to Earth.

This is just the first phase; in the second phase starting 2020, the ‘Harvestor’ class of vehicles are planned to mine, process, and then bring back samples weighing hundreds of tons as well as produce fuel to consume for itself.

(Clockwise from top) The Harvestor fuel-processor, the DragonFly miner, and the FireFly prospector (Images copyright: Bryan Versteeg / Deep Space Industries)

DSi’s plans parallel well with the mood at the WEF summit at Davos that took place last week: A bountiful final frontier! With access to technology increasing on many fronts, it’s becoming easier, rather smarter, to think and do bigger. It’s into this market that DSi, and SpaceX in a less grandiose way before it, and another organisation Planetary Resources (backed by Larry Page and Eric Schmidt among others) have stepped. They plan to redefine the “natural” in natural resources.

I mailed Mr. David Gump, the CEO of DSi, to ask a few questions when the news first broke. Here are his answers.

You’ve said that NASA has been forthcoming [in terms of investing in DSi]. Could you give us some details? Are there any other interested parties?

The top leadership of NASA has been briefed on our plans, so we are optimistic that we will get several contracts from the space agency for technology demonstrations (we carry NASA new tech on a mission so that NASA can evaluate how it works before including it in their own much more expensive missions) and for data about asteroids. We have submitted two proposals already and expect the winners to be announced in mid-March.

DSi plans to launch the DragonFly by 2016, and have it return a 25-65 kg sample from a small asteroid by 2020. In comparison, NASA’s Stardust and JAEA’s Hayabusa took about a decade to return with dust. What’s the difference?

The pace of asteroid detection is picking up. Now more than 900 new targets are identified every year and we’ll pass 10,000 identified near Earth asteroids by the end of 2013. There are many more possibilities to select from than before, so that Deep Space will have an easier time than earlier missions in selecting asteroids that pass closer to Earth at slow speeds.

Since you haven’t demonstrated your robotic 3D printer yet, don’t you think it’s likely to keep away prospective investors? Do you have any plans in the near future to demo it?

We will demo the 3D printer by the end of the year. Some investors like to come in early; others wait until there is less risk. The $3 million that we are raising in 2013 and the $10 million we will raise in 2014 are relatively small amounts, and we will connect with those investors who like the early entry.

Let’s say you find the platinum you’re looking for, and return it to Earth. Won’t the new supply channel drive down prices and remove from the economic purpose of your program?

There is a lot of confusion between what we’re actually saying, and what people are writing about us. As we worked very hard to make clear in our news conference, the primary market for asteroid resources is in space [emphasis mine], not terrestrially. Anything useful in high orbit costs $20,000 per kg to put there. What’s useful from asteroids includes propellant to refuel some of the 300 communications satellites in high orbit, and metals to fabricate expanded capabilities for them, from more power through more solar arrays, to more bandwidth per satellite through more spot beam antennas.

Our competitor, Planetary Resources, does emphasize mining PGMs [Platinum Group Metals] for export to Earth, but Deep Space does not. PGMs, gold, and silver will be profitable only as by-products of a robust asteroid processing industry creating fuel and building materials for the in space market[emphasis mine].

Including DSi, there have been two major entrants into the fledgling “asteroid-mining” sector in 2013. Have you long foreseen this? What do you think about the future of space exploration on the one hand and the expansion of natural resources to include the universe itself on the other?

Yes, I’ve foreseen that the resources of the solar system eventually will be opened to private-sector development. The reason is that every year, the cost of any high-technology project is getting less expensive. Each year brings lighter materials, electronics that are smaller, cheaper and more powerful, and rocket launchers that cost less. Each year, therefore, the amount of money required to start an ambitious space campaign is smaller and affordable by more and more companies.


(This blog post first appeared at The Copernican on February 1, 2013.)