Hard rock in space makes no noise
IF LIKE ME you’re an ageing ‘Trekkie’, chances are that you’ve heard the phrase “Space – the final frontier” several bazillion times. Thanks to a company called Deep Space Industries Inc, the final frontier may finally get explored.
Deep Space Industries Inc is essentially an asteroid-mining company aiming to extract the potentially vast mineral wealth present in space rocks.
The plan talked up by Deep Space Industries involves launching a fleet of small automated prospecting spacecraft in 2015. Should all go to plan and minerals are found, Deep Space Industries will begin to mine these minerals by 2025. Being able to also extract water from Asteroids should also make it theoretically possible to create hydrogen-based propellants that can be used to refuel spacecraft for their return journey to earth, or take them even deeper into the solar system.
The logic of this is inescapably robust, as manufacturing and fuelling a spacecraft in space should be vastly cheaper than building and launching them from earth. With thousands of asteroids passing near Earth every year, a veritable treasure trove is potentially located on our doorstep. Mining and manufacturing in space also has some pretty positive consequences for the environment, too. Another added side benefit will involve building a detailed map of near-earth asteroids, and working with space rocks could also greatly help if an asteroid was on a collision course with Earth.
That they’ve also chosen to call their first wave of automated prospecting space craft Fireflies will not only earn Deep Space Industries Inc some serious kudos with sci-fi fans, but will also allow for low cost asteroid prospecting. The Fireflies will be made from affordable “cubesat” components and will piggyback a ride into space aboard rockets used to launch communications satellites into orbit.
Having hopefully identified wealth-bearing space rocks, larger spacecraft (called Dragonflies), will be launched in 2016, and will extract mineral samples from rocks identified by firefly craft as being wealth-bearing. The Dragonflies will then deliver samples back to Earth for analysis.
Longer term, Deep Space Industries Inc have even more ambitious plans that will involve using extracted minerals to build communications satellites and space-based solar power stations. Central to this space-based manufacturing capability is what Deep Space is calling the MicroGravity Foundry, which is a 3D metal printer designed to work in zero gravity environments.
With NASA now a shell of its former self, here’s hoping that private industry can step up to the task. Should they succeed, the final frontier could well be within reach very soon. PAT PILCHER