By: Sarah Scoles
WHEN MOST PEOPLE think of asteroids, they might think of phrases like “civilization killer.” Or “boring rock.” But other people think “business opportunity.” A growing set of companies, including Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources, want to mine asteroids for all they’re worth. After digging out materials like water and precious metals, entrepreneurs can sell those commodities in space—to the maybe-burgeoning exploration industry—and back on Earth.
But Earthlings are still a long way from mining asteroids. In the meantime, then, mining companies need a short-term financial plan to stay in business. To make money and advance their technology in the lean years—the ones between mission planning and cashing in on those sweet, sweet space rocks—they sometimes have to get creative.
Not every nascent space company gets to rely on billionaire backing (that’s what the main mining-of-the-future competitor, Planetary Resources, did). No, Deep Space Industries had to start by searching for funders. Last fall, the upstart company snagged a seed investment from the firm Metatron Global, money that will help it make general hires and drive product development.
But that’s not the only kind of investment the company is looking for. Other collaborators are putting money into specific R&D projects, like Deep Space Industries’ first planned mission: Prospector-X. Set for launch in 2017, this nanosatellite will stay in low-Earth orbit, testing the tech that will go to an actual asteroid—like propulsion, navigation, and resistance to radiation.
To support that prototype mission, Deep Space Industries has partnered with Luxembourg. Yes, the country. Why … Luxembourg? It’s known for finance and banking, says Meagan Crawford, Deep Space Industries’ director of communications, and has “a deep background in mining and the steel industry, as well as a vibrant high-tech industry.” (When I suggested that it also might have been bureaucratically easier to get their buy-in than the US government’s, Crawford assured me that “governments are governments.”)
After Prospector-X (hypothetically) proves its technology, Deep Space Industries plans to launch the real deal, the 50-kilogram Prospector-1. This spacecraft will—by the end of the decade, the company says—actually go to an asteroid and appraise its value, using a mid-infrared camera and a neutron spectrometer to see up to three feet below ground. Eventually, a harvester spacecraft will dig up the stuff these instruments see, and sell it for cash dollars.
But that money is a long ways away. Which is why it’s important to realize that Prospector-1’s bones are a “solar system exploration platform,” says Crawford. That platform doesn’t have to be mine-oriented. Once Deep Space Industries has its own Prospector-1, it plans to sell other copies of the platform to other entities. Businesses, sure. But also nations. “Countries that don’t have their own space programs who are looking to break in to the space industry,” says Crawford.
“Kind of like a space-program starter-kit,” I say.
She says yes.
Selling the Future
How else to monetize your yet-to-be-launched asteroid mining mission? Deep Space Industries has taken a page out of NASA’s book and is commercializing the component technology behind the still-unbuilt Prospectors. Instead of using the typical flammable fuel for thrust, these spacecraft use superheated water vapor, shot from their Comet-1™ thruster.
Water may not be the most efficient go-juice, but it does have some perks. Like being the first thing Deep Space Industries plans to suck out of asteroids. If they make a water-thruster now, it could be in wide use by the time the company can refuel everybody with asteroid water.
The company’s stereo navigation system—two cameras like eyes, giving the satellites a good sense of distance and direction—-also appeals to companies that want to fly clusters of small satellites in formation, like HawkEye360. That company plans to detect and geolocate radio waves coming from Earth, kind of like those governmental satellites snapping images of your house, but for radio waves.
HawkEye360 hopes to eventually have six or seven satellite clusters, giving them constant whole-Earth coverage. But manufacturing satellites isn’t HawkEye’s thing, nor is securing a spot on a launch vehicle. So that’s where Deep Space Industries comes in. They won a contract, along with the Space Flight Laboratory in Toronto, to provide the satellites for HawkEye’s prototype cluster. Cha-ching.
That Government Cheese
And then there’s the cash from the US government. Public-private partnerships—like SpaceX’s launching of NASA payloads to the International Space Station—are common and becoming more so in the modern space industry. Deep Space Industries’ offices are actually located within NASA’s Ames Research Center, in its Research Park in Mountain View, California. Deep Space has secured contracts related to NASA’s Asteroid Initiative and Asteroid Redirect Mission—the controversial project to bag a boulder from an asteroid, drag it to a convenient location, and then do stuff still kind of TBD there.
Under these contracts, Deep Space has investigated no-refrigeration-needed asteroid-ingredient propellants and simulated asteroid material. NASA has also contracted the company to investigate its spacecrafts’ compatibility with NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Vehicle and launch rocket, as well as the economics of future public-private asteroid partnerships.
For those latter two contracts, Deep Space Industries hooked up with a company called Near Earth LLC, whose founder, Hoyt Davidson, declined to comment for the story, citing a non-disclosure agreement. “They’re an advisory consulting service, and they do a lot of work in helping provide funding opportunities for space companies, acting as an investment bank,” says Crawford.
It reads like a solid business model: Deep Space Industries calls Silicon Valley home, they’re cozy with NASA and its own asteroid program, they sell the technology that may eventually be good for mining asteroids but is useful for other purposes today, they’re getting people hooked on the kinds of space systems that asteroids can resupply, and they want to jump start national space programs.
“Their strategy is akin to what Elon Musk has done with going to Mars,” says Chris DeMay, co-founder of HawkEye360. There’s a huge long-term goal, and then all these on-the-way money-maker-technology-advancers. But just as there’s no guarantee Musk will make it to Mars, there’s no guarantee Deep Space Industries will mine any asteroids. At least its timeline is fast enough—with prospecting planned to begin by 2020—that we can all hold our breath.