Newly formed Deep Space Industries unveiled an ambitious plan on Tuesday to extract raw materials from nearby asteroids and turn it into fuel and spare parts for satellites.
It may sound like science fiction, but the company's chief technology officer, John Mankins, who previously worked at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said there's really nothing magical about it.
"The technology may not have been used in space for the exact purposes that we propose, but the fundamental technologies are really at hand," Mankins said at a press conference at the Museum of Flying in Santa Monica, Calif., to announce the new venture.
Interestingly, another startup, Planetary Resources, rolled out a similar business plan in April. Though the two companies may end up vying for the same customers, they are taking different paths.
Planetary Resources plans to start off building, launching and operating small telescopes in Earth orbit to scout for potential mining targets. Deep Space Industries' idea is to use inexpensive, off-the-shelf CubeSat-based spacecraft to visit select asteroids.
The six-month "Firefly" missions, each of which would cost about $20 million, would begin in 2015, said Deep Space chief executive David Gump told Discovery News.
Those would be followed a year later by slightly larger "Dragonfly" spacecraft capable of putting themselves into orbit around a target and extracting up to about 100 pounds of material to bring back to Earth.
Gump figures money for the venture will come from space agencies, including NASA and other research institutions, as well as from companies interested in advertising, sponsorships and marketing programs.
Ultimately, Deep Space wants to extract water and other volatile materials from huge chunks of asteroids brought back to Earth orbit. The materials would be used to make fuel for communications satellites, adding another $20 million to $25 million in value to each. Gump figures a commercial refueling service should be available by 2020.
Also of value are the asteroid's metals, which could be used in 3D space printers to manufacture solar cells and other satellite components.
The company's founders include engineer Stephen Covey, who has a patent application pending for what he calls a "Microgravity Foundry," - a 3D printer that uses lasers to etch patterns in a nickel-charged gas. The process deposits the metal in precise patterns, similar to how Earth-based 3D printers use nickel powder to produce components.
There should be more than enough asteroids to go around. Recent surveys, initially launched to find asteroids with the potential to hit Earth, are adding about 1,000 targets a year to the list of nearby asteroids, the vast majority of which pose no threat.
Currently there's about 9,500 known near-Earth asteroids, about 850 of which are bigger than 1 kilometer (.62 mile).
"They are the planet-busters. If they hit the Earth there is worldwide climate disruption. They're the sorts of things that killed off the dinosaurs," said mining consultant Mark Sonter, a Deep Space Industries science adviser.
About 2,900 of the known asteroids are bigger than about 300 meters (984 feet) and millions in the 10-meter to 20-meter (33- to 66-foot) diameter range.
"The number of near-Earth asteroids is going up all the time. It's going up very fast. This represents the number of our potential targets for mining or for resource recovery," Sonter said.
Image credit: Deep Space Industries