Deep Space Industries announced today that it will send a fleet of asteroid-prospecting spacecraft out into the solar system to hunt for resources to accelerate space development to benefit Earth. These “FireFly” spacecraft will utilize low-cost CubeSat components and get discounted delivery to space by ride-sharing on the launch of larger communications satellites.
Deep Space Industries is the second company, after Planetary Resources in 2012, to announce such a mission. “Using low cost technologies, and combining the legacy of our space program with the innovation of today’s young high tech geniuses, we will do things that would have been impossible just a few years ago,” said Deep Space Chairman Rick Tumlinson
The FireFlies have a mass of about 55 lb (25 kg) and the first will be launched in 2015 on journeys of two to six months. Deep Space will be building a small fleet of the spacecraft using innovative miniature technologies, and working with NASA and other companies and groups to identify targets of opportunity.
“My smartphone has more computing power than they had on the Apollo Moon missions,” said Tumlinson. “We can make amazing machines smaller, cheaper, and faster than ever before. Imagine a production line of FireFlies, cocked and loaded and ready to fly out to examine any object that gets near the Earth.”
Starting in 2016, Deep Space will begin launching 70-lb DragonFlies for round-trip visits that bring back samples. The DragonFly expeditions will take two to four years, depending on the target, and will return 60 to 150 lb. Deep Space believes that combining science, prospecting and sponsorship will be a win/win for everyone, both lowering costs for exploration and enabling the public to join the adventure.
Bringing back asteroid materials is only a step on the way to much bigger things for DSI. The company has a patent-pending technology called the MicroGravity Foundry to transform raw asteroid material into complex metal parts. The MicroGravity Foundry is a 3D printer that uses lasers to draw patterns in a nickel-charged gas medium, causing the nickel to be deposited in precise patterns.
Senior leaders at NASA have been briefed on DSI’s technologies, which would make eventual crewed Mars expeditions less expensive through the use of asteroid-derived propellant. Missions would require fewer launches if the fuel to reach Mars were added in space from the volatiles in asteroids. Mars missions also would be safer with a MicroGravity Foundry on board to print replacements for broken parts, or to create brand new parts invented after the expedition was on its way to the Red Planet.
“Using resources harvested in space is the only way to afford permanent space development,” said Gump. “More than 900 new asteroids that pass near Earth are discovered every year. They can be like the Iron Range of Minnesota was for the Detroit car industry last century — a key resource located near where it was needed. In this case, metals and fuel from asteroids can expand the in-space industries of this century. That is our strategy.”
For example, a large market for DSI is producing fuel for communications satellites. Low-cost asteroid propellant delivered in orbit to comsats will extend their working lifetimes, with each extra month worth $5 million to $8 million per satellite. DSI has executed a non-disclosure agreement with an aerospace company to discuss collaboration on this opportunity.
In a decade, Deep Space will be harvesting asteroids for metals and other building materials, to construct large communications platforms to replace communications satellites, and later solar power stations to beam carbon-free energy to consumers on Earth. As DSI refines asteroids for in-space markets, it also will harvest platinum group metals for terrestrial uses, such as pollution control devices.
Asteroids that fall to Earth are meteorites, and the Deep Space team includes Geoffrey Notkin, star of the international hit television series Meteorite Men (and who contributed to All About Space issue 1) about hunting for them. Notkin has unparalleled expertise in the diversity and market value of these elusive rocks, which are transformed by intense heat during their plunge to the surface. By contrast, the initial asteroid samples to be brought back by Deep Space will have their original in-space composition and structure preserved, creating exceedingly rare specimens for sale to the research and collectors markets.
“We will only be visitors in space until we learn how to live off the land there,” concluded Tumlinson. “This is the Deep Space mission — to find, harvest and process the resources of space to help save our civilization and support the expansion of humanity beyond the Earth — and doing so in a step by step manner that leverages off our space legacy to create an amazing and hopeful future for humanity. We are squarely focused on giving new generations the opportunity to change not only this world, but all the worlds of tomorrow. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?”