Technical and business advances are drastically reducing the cost of space projects, so that goals that were unrealistically costly in the 20th century are becoming practical in the 21st. New low-cost launch vehicles and advanced in-space engines matched with affordable, compact electronics make robotic space exploration and development possible by the private sector. Improved detection systems also show that asteroids pass close by Earth more frequently than earlier thought. Put the pieces together. Recent asteroid surveys have discovered smaller and smaller asteroids, and engines have improved to efficiently haul larger and larger masses, until there’s some overlap in the two sets.
No. The asteroids we will target first will be small (10 meters or less). These sorts of asteroids hit the Earth every day, but disintegrate and burn up high in the atmosphere. The meteorites that do survive passage to the surface generally come from much larger objects, 30 or more meters, and even those are blasted into smaller pieces before they reach the ground. It takes a really large meteorite (50 or more meters in diameter, depending upon its composition and structure) to actually impact the Earth hard enough to make a crater.
It takes less energy — measured in change in velocity (or “delta-V”) — to get from Earth to many of the asteroids we know about, than it takes to get to the Moon, land gently, and take off again. Also, in the case of the Moon, we can’t use highly efficient ion engines, and instead must use chemical engines, which can provide more thrust over a shorter period, but require ten or more times as much fuel.
Some asteroids are literally closer to us than the Moon as well. Based on the probabilities of how many asteroids are likely to exist unseen in Earth-passing orbits, there is probably one asteroid in the 5-10 meter range in a temporary orbit around the Earth even as you read this.
The Moon’s resources may include vast amounts of ice at the poles, containing water and other compounds. Deep Space Industries will develop in-space facilities to make use of these volatiles, should they become on line at affordable prices.
For most products, yes. Currently, a combination of launch energy for the mining equipment and de-orbit energy for the products (the two energy levels are equivalent for controlled landings) puts the price out of bounds for products for Earth use.
But that works both ways. Because it is very expensive to send material into space, substituting asteroid sources for water, propellant or devices launched from Earth will be lucrative. Mining in space initially will serve in-space markets. These can range from providing simple rock “shielding” for radiation protection to human facilities and ships like space station and missions to places like Mars. Next in complexity might be propellant, water and air from ice, and finally metals, both for their own value in the case of PGMs and things like iron and nickel and silicon to be made into structures such as facilities and solar power plants.
For example: Intelsat recently negotiated a deal with Canada’s aerospace giant MDA showing interest in buying 1,000 kg of fuel delivered to its communications satellites in orbit, at a price of $280 million. NASA and other space agencies may be planning deep space missions to Mars or a new space facility at the L2 point – which would require shileding, volatiles and other types of support/materials.
Eventually mining will be sufficiently productive and space infrastructure will be sufficiently sophisticated to start returning large chunks of gold, silver, and platinum-group metals to Earth. These elements later will be joined by molybdenum, nickel, tin, and chromium as efficiency improves and terrestrial mines are exhausted.
Even earlier than delivering metals to Earth, the home planet will benefit from how asteroid harvesting will enable the economical creation of solar power satellites. These will beam non-polluting, carbon-free and radiation-free power to electric utility grids on Earth.
The best case will be to harvest an asteroid that once was a comet, where perhaps half the mass is ice wrapped in insulating dust, soil and gravel. Other asteroid types, such as Carbonaceous Chondrites, are about 20% water by mass, with the water locked up in hydrated minerals. The average is probably closer to 10%. A single 30-meter asteroid could provide 50 tons of water for making propellant, worth several billion dollars.
Telescopes work well because there’s an enormously energetic light source — the sun — supplying energy to reflect off of the asteroids in the solar system.
For radar, one has to supply the energy needed to send a ping to an asteroid and so the range is limited, especially since the interesting small asteroids don’t have much surface to reflect the radar energy. When an asteroid comes sufficiently close, radar can produce very useful information on its size, spin rate, and potentially its metal content.
At first it will be DSI’s investor’s and then our customers. And this is an important point. Until now the sort of projects DSI is planning have been paid for by taxpayers like you. We believe it is now time for we the people to get involved, and that means, like in any business we have to raise the money ourselves to get started. Then we have to figure out ways to make what we are doing pay for itself and then produce a profit. This is how the free enterprise system works.
In the case of supplying materials and volatiles for government missions of exploration and science we will actually save taxpayers money they would have had to spend to lift those things up from the Earth – while creating a new industry that will benefit the people back home. Do you use GPS? Do you watch DirecTV or use Sirius Satellite Radio? If so, you’ll probably help pay for it, and you probably won’t even notice. As companies pay for on-orbit fueling to reduce the cost of their space systems, money goes from their customers (maybe including you) to their suppliers, such as DSI. In return, this technology will help improve the quality of those services, since with on-orbit fueling, satellites can be more powerful and deliver more video and other services to customers.
Asteroids range in age from the very formation of the Solar System some 4.5 billion years ago to more recent objects that have been knocked off of planets like the Moon, Mars and even the Earth just a few millions of years ago.