Last year, startup company Planetary Resources announced their audacious ambition to mine asteroids.
The reaction was a curious mixture of excitement, trepidation, and incredulity. Within hours, the space community on Twitter and other social media was on fire with news reports, discussions, and debates. Now, they have competition too, with Deep Space Industries (DSI) making their own announcement last month. A sign, perhaps, of the kind of world we now live in. But how feasible are their plans, and what exactly are the implications of asteroid mining as a new industry?
PICTURES: Top 10 Ways to Stop an Asteroid
It's still barely the start of the 21st century, and already the private space industry is beginning to take form. SpaceX has launched the world's first privately developed space vehicle, the Dragon, to dock with the International Space Station (ISS). Meanwhile, other private companies are developing spacecraft, and even toying with plans to send people to Mars. Many of these ideas are still barely past their inception, but they're being taken seriously by many.
The two asteroid mining companies, DSI and Planetary Resources, have the same basic goal, but their intended methods are somewhat different. Planetary Resources are currently developing small, low-cost "LEO" telescopes to survey asteroids on demand, from Earth orbit. They later plan to develop two larger types of prospecting craft. The "Interceptor" will act as a longer range prospector, being able to intercept any asteroids that come within 10-30 times the Earth-moon orbit (something which occurs quite frequently). Finally, the "Rendezvous Prospector" would be able to travel halfway across the inner solar system to gather detailed information about asteroids - including size, shape, rotation, and density. While it's clear that they plan to develop craft to return samples and eventually return whole asteroids, they haven't yet made any further details public.
DSI, on the other hand, are taking a more aggressive approach. They currently have two planned spacecraft. The "Firefly", constructed from low cost materials, will prospect for suitable asteroids to mine. The larger "Dragonfly" craft will then go and start collecting asteroid material. They appear to have numerous more ambitious concept sketches for future craft, but again they haven't released many details yet.
ANALYSIS: Mining Asteroids: Not Mankind's Silver Bullet
As well as metal, both companies intend to harvest hydrogen and oxygen to effectively create orbital fuel stations for other spacecraft. Planetary Resources have the long term goal of being able to alter the orbital trajectories of asteroids, and return entire asteroids into lunar orbit for mining. Meanwhile, DSI's plans involve a 3D printer, dubbed the "Microgravity Foundry", which will be able to create high quality metal components in orbit. Between them, we could be looking at the beginnings of true orbital industry.