Asteroid Mining Just Moved A Step Closer To Being A Reality

Asteroids are rich in useful water and metals. DSI
Jonathan O`Callaghan 12 May 2016, 14:52

A prospective asteroid mining company has taken a major step towards beginning operations in the next 10 years. Deep Space Industries (DSI) has announced plans to launch a demonstration spacecraft to test some of the technologies that will be needed to find and utilize asteroid material.

Now, asteroid mining is probably something that still feels like it’s far off in the future at the moment. But last week, DSI said that it will partner with Luxembourg (via their Space Resources initiative) to develop the various technologies needed to start asteroid mining. The first result of this partnership is a spacecraft called Prospector-X, which is a small vehicle that will be launched into low Earth orbit within a year.

“This is the first important step to be able to test the technologies, and form the kind of partnerships that will get us there in the long term,” Daniel Faber, CEO of DSI, told IFLScience.

DSI’s ultimate goal is to have a fleet of prospecting spacecraft locate asteroids to be mined, with subsequent vehicles sent to the surface to actually extract resources. Before that can be done, though, a number of technologies need to be developed, some of which are on Prospector-X.

This includes a navigation system to help spacecraft safely move around asteroids, and other spacecraft (although this one will remain in Earth orbit). Also to be tested will be shielding for electronics in space, to protect them from radiation.

But most interestingly of all is a new type of thruster, which is powered by nothing but water. Called Comet-1, the thruster will superheat water inside the spacecraft, and the resultant steam will be fired out of the spacecraft, providing fuel efficiency comparable to a regular chemical spacecraft thruster.

“Think of it as a flying steam kettle,” Faber said. “We can use the water directly as a propellant, we don’t have to burn it, just accelerate it.”

An artist's impression of Prospector-X. DSI

This has some rather important connotations. Asteroid mining has often been touted as a way to obtain large quantities of precious metals like platinum, as some asteroids are rich in such metals. But water is perhaps now the more desirable resource, as it can be extracted and re-used in space for a potentially lower price than it costs to launch it from Earth.

Water, as you may know, has a number of important uses, from drinking water to providing the constituents (hydrogen and oxygen) of rocket fuel. Chris Lewicki, CEO of rival asteroid mining company Planetary Resources, suggested that water “will define the 21st century in space, as oil defined the 20th century on Earth.”

But Prospector-X is showcasing a different use of water, namely how it can be used directly as a fuel. Perhaps this technology could be utilized by a fleet of prospecting asteroid spacecraft, to keep them fueled as they perform their operations on an asteroid.

There are still many technologies that need to be tested and perfected before asteroid mining can become a reality. But Prospector-X is a step towards that goal, one that Faber says can be achieved perhaps sooner than you think.

“We could begin mining operations in as little as 10 years,” he said. “Now, there’s a lot we need to learn about the geology of asteroids, and we need to get extraction equipment working, but a 10-year time frame is completely feasible.”

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