Companies compete to lead the charge to mine asteroids
In what many believe to be one of the next logical steps in broadening space as a commercial market, Deep Space Industries (DSI) has announced its plan to send the world’s first commercial mining spacecraft to a near-Earth asteroid. To that end, the company’s Prospector-1 spacecraft is slated to launch before the close of the decade and will rendezvous with, and explore, one of the many asteroids inhabiting our planetary neighborhood.
Intelligent enough to operate without guidance from DSI’s mission control, the small spacecraft will be capable of analyzing the composition of the asteroid, via both visual light and infrared imaging, in order to determine the target’s water content. Water is a critical resource for off-Earth ventures, and finding a relatively easy source from which to extract it is an essential goal of DSI.
However, the company first plans to test its technologies much closer to home before sending a spacecraft into deep space. DSI, along with its partner, the government of Luxembourg, has announced the experimental Prospector-X mission to low-Earth orbit (LEO), scheduled to launch in 2017.
Once in orbit, Prospector-X will be used as a testbed for proving the effectiveness of key systems necessary for lower-cost exploration spacecraft. “Deep Space Industries has worked diligently to get to this point, and now we can say with confidence that we have the right technology, the right team and the right plan to execute this historic mission,” stated Rick Tomlinson, chairman of the board and co-founder of Deep Space Industries, in a release issued by the company. “Building on our Prospector-X mission, Prospector-1 will be the next step on our way to harvesting asteroid resources.”
One of the fundamental core components used on both Prospector craft is the water-based Comet-1 propulsion system. While many spacecraft use chemical or electric propulsion, DSI plans to utilize super-heated water vapor to generate thrust. The company contends that their Comet-1 electrothermal thruster occupies a valuable niche between low-cost/low-performance and high-cost/high-performance systems.
According to DSI, using water as a propellant provides spacecraft operators with a propulsion system that is natively inert and safe to launch from crewed vehicles, such as the International Space Station (ISS). Another benefit stems from the comparative ease to refuel a spacecraft from mined resources, or from a space-based refueling station – another of DSI’s long-term goals.
“During the next decade, we will begin the harvest of space resources from asteroids,” said Daniel Faber, CEO at Deep Space Industries, in a press release issued by the company. “We are changing the paradigm of business operations in space, from one where our customers carry everything with them, to one in which the supplies they need are waiting for them when they get there.”
Though Prospector-X will be based on a standardized CubeSat design, its larger – and more capable – Prospector-1 sibling will be built on a custom, hexagonal architecture and will tip the scales at slightly more than 110 pounds (50 kilograms), fully-fueled. DSI hopes to prove that a small craft can still be an effective and affordable exploration platform, and parlay that into their future Harvestor-X and Harvestor-1 programs.
DSI is not the only company with plans to harvest the Solar System’s resources. Redmond, Washington-based Planetary Resources is moving along with mining plans of their own. The company launched their testbed spacecraft – the Arkyd 3R – as a secondary payload on the SpaceX CRS-6 mission and was released from the ISS on July 16, 2015.
The 3U CubeSat spent five months going through a battery of tests to prove the company’s core technology that will eventually be used on their larger Arkyd 100 and Arkyd 200 vehicles. To further test the optical system slated to be used on the Arkyd “century series”, Planetary Resources is readying the larger cousin to the 3R – the Arkyd 6A – for launch later this year; it will devote its time to scanning Earth in infrared wavelengths as a warm-up to the company’s ultimate goal: asteroid prospecting.
After these risk-reduction missions are complete, Planetary Resources plans for the Arkyd 100 to operate in LEO, utilizing the spacecraft’s infrared imaging system to spot potential targets for future resource exploitation. The company has already identified at least eight asteroids as targets of interest, and it will continue to down-select as more data becomes available.
Asteroids can be composed of many different elements, among them: metals, rock, carbon, and water. Both companies feel that water is likely to be one of the most valuable resources for mining. Beyond being necessary to sustaining life as we understand it, water can be used as a propellant, and not only in its vapor state as in DSI’s Comet-1 propulsion system.
When broken down into its constituent elements – hydrogen and oxygen – it becomes the energetic fuel behind engines such as the RS-25, RL10, and many others. Having on-orbit refueling facilities can reduce the load on launch vehicles and significantly extend the operational lifetime of spacecraft, not to mention enabling greater ranges for both crewed and robotic missions.
However, there is still some question as to the ability of these companies to legally undertake such missions. A number of nations, including the United States and Russia, are signatories of the Outer Space Treaty. Though there is some argument as to the extent to which this treaty can reach, it basically states: “Outer space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.” Some argue this means countries may not grant permission to mine asteroids simply because they lack the legal right to do so.
Nevertheless, the United States passed the SPACE Act of 2015, which states that the resources extracted from asteroids (or other celestial bodies) belong to the company, or person, who obtained them. Planetary Resources strongly supports the clear and straightforward language of the legislation, though there has been some concern raised by international entities. As interplanetary resource mining moves from the drawing board to the launch pad, having clear and concise regulatory language will be key in fostering the development of the nascent industry.
Video Courtesy of Deep Space Industries
Curt Godwin has been a fan of space exploration for as long as he can remember, keeping his eyes to the skies from an early age. Initially majoring in Nuclear Engineering, Curt later decided that computers would be a more interesting - and safer - career field. He's worked in education technology for more than 20 years, and has been published in industry and peer journals, and is a respected authority on wireless network engineering. Throughout this period of his life, he maintained his love for all things space and has written about his experiences at a variety of NASA events, both on his personal blog and as a freelance media representative.