Inspired By Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Deep Space Industries Moves Closer to Goal of Mining Asteroids for Natural Resources

Sep 30, 2014

Though space travel used to be dominated solely by the government—and the American and Russian governments, specifically—a growing number of private companies have entered the formerly inaccessible industry over the past decade. Among this new crop of emergent businesses is Deep Space Industries, a space startup whose aim is appropriately out of this world.

While the majority of its peers have thus far set their sights on reducing the cost of space travel, Deep Space is more concerned with what happens after the cost of space travel has been brought down to palatable levels, says David Gump, the company’s vice chair. “What Deep Space is focused on is the next step,” Gump explains. 

“The primary goal of Deep Space is to reduce the cost of operating in space,” Gump says. “It costs $17 million per ton to get anything—propellant, etc.—up into high orbit, and that’s the problem we’re trying to solve. It’s fantastically expensive to get supplies, fuel, living quarters, transponders, or anything, really, up to high orbit where you can then put it to work doing communications or remote sensing or any number of things."

With companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX leading the way, Deep Space and its backers are confident that the demand for this kind of extraterrestrial resource mining and distribution will increase precipitously. The primary reason, Gump says, is that transporting water and other resources into space is cost-prohibitive in many instances. “As all these entrepreneurs bring down the cost of getting to the surface, how do you operate in space at a much lower cost? And that’s where the harvesting of asteroid material comes in. We will mine resources in space so that you can cut the supply cord with your home planet.”

“If you need propellant you can buy it in place, rather than needing to lift it off the ground at tremendous expense,” Gump says. “We provide the way for all these innovations in space to stay in space, because we’re bring about cost reductions that ultimately translate into being able to stay in space.”

The kind of interstellar prospecting and mining service that Deep Space is pioneering could have far-reaching implications. Take, for example, the difference in costs between the Mars-bound spacecraft the U.S. and India completed this year. Compared to NASA’s $637 million budget, India was able to launch a competing craft for under $100 million. 

Though a number of factors contributed to the higher U.S. price tag, the Indian spacecraft is scheduled to orbit the Red Planet in an oval pattern upon its arrival. Such a formation, according to NPR, requires less fuel than a circular obit, which the U.S. craft will utilize. In a world—or, more appropriately in this case, a universe—where fuel can be transported directly to a spacecraft in space, the costs of space travel consequently decrease.

Deep Space is in the midst of a research initiative to make this dream a reality. The company is betting that recent advancements in satellite technology will allow it to move on from development to the execution phase. “The idea is we will first spend several years prospecting among near-Earth asteroids for the ones with the most valuable resources,” Gump says.

“This is made possible for a small company by the fact that there is a revolution in small satellites, where a spacecraft as small as your briefcase can be dropped off on the launch of a much larger communications satellite. This hitchhiking service is very inexpensive—from a few hundred thousand dollars to the low millions—and then that briefcase-sized spacecraft can sail out to the rendezvous with the nearest asteroid to inspect it to see if it’s got water, hydrocarbons, and metals, which can then be used in space.”

The company is now squarely focused on perfecting technology that will allow it to effectively prospect asteroids. There are, Gump says, many obstacles they must still overcome in this pursuit.

“We are in the prospecting phase, where we are designing and beginning to fabricate the really tiny prospecting spacecraft that will go out and try to determine what an asteroid is really made of,” Gump explains. “But one of the technology challenges we’re facing is finding ways to process asteroid materials in zero gravity.” 

Once Deep Space has perfected the technology—and Gump and his colleagues are confident they will—the company will have a huge target waiting to be exploited. There are nearly 2 million near-Earth asteroids, Gump says, whose existence and orbits have yet to be established. Deep Space plans on accessing their untapped resources. 

“In many cases, you can find some asteroids that will hold 10-30% water and 10-20% metal right in the same body,” he says. “In some ways it’ll be easier to get metals off of asteroids than it is to get them off the ground on Earth, where they’re buried deep in its core.”

Once the company has begun identifying and mining these near-Earth asteroids, it can then move on to the next stage of development. “After the prospecting has been under way and we’ve identified good candidates, then we send out larger spacecraft the size of large communication satellites, and we go out and bring back several hundred tons of asteroid material to earth orbit,” Gump says.

“Once we’ve done that, we can turn those resources into products of great value like propellant to extend the life of communication satellites and metals that can then be used to build larger antennas or bigger solar arrays that can provide more power.”

With the company’s prototype model moving closer to becoming a reality—Gump expects it will be done within the next three or so years—Deep Space is poised to play an important role in the burgeoning space exploration sector.

“We can build all sorts of things for the space economy, which is going to be growing very rapidly now that these new low-cost launch systems are reducing the barrier to getting into space. We’ll reduce the barrier of staying in space,” Gump says. 

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