mothership-660x375SAN FRANCISCO— An asteroid-mining company has unveiled plans for a new mothership spacecraft designed to carry a dozen small probes to explore asteroids, comets, or even the moon.

The mothership, designed by Deep Space Industries, is about 3 feet in diameter and 1.5 feet tall, weighing about 330 pounds. It would carry a swarm of small satellites called cubesats, small cube-shaped spacecraft about six inches on each side that would carry instruments to study and probe the target object.

As for what exactly those instruments will be, the company wants to poll scientists about the mothership, how useful it could be to their research, and whether there are design changes that could improve its utility, says James DiCorcia of Deep Space Industries, who presented the idea Dec. 15 here at the meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.

In addition to providing transportation and a communications link to Earth, the mothership would shield the cubesats from space radiation during the journey to its destination. NASA already has a cubesat program and has sent satellites into low-Earth orbit, where they’re safe inside the protective bubble of Earth’s magnetic field. Still, depending on the particular design, a cubesat could last years in deep space far from Earth’s protection.

Deep Space Industries, of course, is a business whose goal is to make money. The US company’s main interest since it was founded early last year has been asteroid mining. DiCorcia says scientists would have to pay for a ride onboard the mothership if they already have a cubesat designed and ready to go. If not, the company could work with the researchers to engineer one. He estimates that each mission would likely cost a researcher on the order of a couple million dollars.

Although that may not sound cheap, the idea is that hitching a ride on the mothership would still be a lot less costly and more efficient way of sending probes into space, DiCorcia says. For example, a researcher won’t have to go through a long proposal process with NASA that may never lead to an actual mission. But whether there are enough interested scientists—and more importantly, available grant money—remains to be seen. “We have to see if the money’s there,” DiCorcia said. “If the money’s not there, then we can’t do it.”

In addition to charging to ferry researchers’ cubesats, sending the mothership out would be an opportunity for the company to test its system and learn how to explore asteroids as potential places for mining. Eventually, they might create prospecting kits that they could just send out to any asteroid that shows promise. In the most optimistic scenario, DiCorcia says, the mothership’s first mission to an asteroid could launch onboard a rocket in 2018.

Ultimately, Deep Space Industries is interested in mining asteroids for water, ices, and other volatile chemicals that can be used to make rocket fuel, which can then be stored in orbiting refilling stations for spacecraft on their way to Mars or other distant destinations.

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