“If you can dream it, you can be it.” So go the opening remarks on the website of Deep Space Industries, a newly established space exploration company which announced at a Tuesday press conference that it plans on creating the world’s first fleet of commercial asteroid-mining spacecraft.
While it sounds like something out of a plot of a science fiction movie, the move by the California-based company to get involved in the asteroid-mining business reflects a similar one made by another group, Planetary Resources, back in April 2012. Planetary Resources happen to have the support of some very wealthy and influential backers, including Google founders Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, Texan billionaire Ross Perot Jr. and Silicon Valley venture capitalist Ram Shriram. (In keeping with the science fiction theme, Avatar director James Cameron is also an advisor.)
Deep Space Industries, on the other hand, is a lesser known creature. Heading the company is David Gump, a space industry expert with previous experience handling multi-million dollar NASA contracts. Gump hopes to begin prospecting for asteroids as soon as 2015, and the company has said that by 2020 it will begin commercial operations to produce material to be used in space.
Deep Space is upbeat about its ability to execute this endeavor on the cheap. Its plan involves going small, using tiny, 55 lb. spacecraft called ‘FireFlies,’ constructed from miniature satellite components and launched from larger commercial satellites to cut costs. By 2016, the company hopes to be sending out 70lb. ‘DragonFlies’ to bring back asteroid samples weighing between 60 to 150 lbs.
The company’s business plan is predicated on leveraging partnerships, licensing and sub-contracting, enticing brands that are already sponsoring space adventures, such as Red Bull and Google, to invest once the FireFly spacecraft serve as Deep Space Industries’ proof of concept.
Both Deep Space and Planetary Resources have their share of doubters. Beyond the questions of technical feasibility lies the issue of whether such a project could ever break even, let alone make a profit. The private space exploration industry has been flush recently with wealthy backers such as SpaceX’s Elon Musk and Miscrosoft’s Paul Allen. But the clear financial incentives needed to sustain broader commercial investment in space exploration have so far been lacking.
This is perhaps why asteroid mining presents such a tantalizing opportunity. There are nearly 9,000 documented near-earth asteroids — and likely tens of thousands more — within striking distance from earth, believed to contain a wealth of mineral riches including platinum, gold and rare-earth minerals. The only problem is figuring out a financially feasible method of extracting these minerals and returning them to Earth.
That is, however, a significant problem. A 2011 report by the Keck Institute for Space Studies concluded that more than $2.5 billion would need to be spent to retrieve just a single 500-ton asteroid.
Commodity analysts have also questioned whether mining would be worth the cost. According to calculations by Barclays and the Financial Times commodities teams in 2012, gold, for example — which currently trades at around $1,700 an ounce, would have to trade at $518 million per ounce for asteroid-gold to break even on any Earth-based exchange.
Deep Space plans on bypassing this issue by using the resources it mines in space for use in space, rather than returning it to Earth. “Mining asteroids for rare metals alone isn’t economical, but makes sense if you already are processing them for volatiles and bulk metals for in-space uses,” said Mark Sonter, an expert in terrestrial mining projects and a member of the Deep Space board. The company have already briefed senior leaders at NASA on the possibility of fuelling in space using volatiles in the asteroids and of cutting down on the number of launches; it also claims to be in talks with an unnamed aerospace company about providing fuel for commercial satellites – a market where it sees a wealth of future potential.
Despite all the issues it will have to contend with, Deep Space Industries is clearly convinced that its plan is in the realms of the possible rather than improbable. “The harvest of space is going to be the biggest industrial transformation in human history,” says its website. We’ll just have to see if the time is ripe for that transformation to pay off.