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Deep Space Industries: Mining Near-Earth Asteroids

Deep Space Industries is announcing today that it will be engaged in asteroid prospecting through a fleet of small ‘Firefly’ spacecraft based on cubesat technologies, cutting the costs still further by launching in combination with communications satellites. The idea is to explore the small asteroids that come close to Earth, which exist in large numbers indeed. JPL analysts have concluded that as many as 100,000 Near Earth Objects larger than the Tunguska impactor (some 30 meters wide) are to be found, with roughly 7000 identified so far. So there’s no shortage of targets (see Greg Matloff’s Deflecting Asteroids in IEEE Spectrum for more on this.

‘Smaller, cheaper, faster’ is a one-time NASA mantra that DSI is now resurrecting through its Firefly spacecraft, each of which masses about 25 kilograms and takes advantages of advances in computing and miniaturization. In its initial announcement, company chairman Rick Tumlinson talked about a production line of Fireflies ready for action whenever an NEO came near the Earth. The first launches are slated to begin in 2015. Sample-return missions that are estimated to take between two and four years to complete are to commence the following year, with 25 to 70 kilograms of asteroid material becoming available for study. Absent a fiery plunge through the atmosphere, such samples will have their primordial composition and structure intact.


The Deep Space Industries announcement is to be streamed live later today. It will reflect the company’s ambitious game plan, one that relies on public involvement and corporate sponsorship to move the ball forward. David Gump is CEO of the new venture:

“The public will participate in FireFly and DragonFly missions via live feeds from Mission Control, online courses in asteroid mining sponsored by corporate marketers, and other innovative ways to open the doors wide. The Google Lunar X Prize, Unilever, and Red Bull each are spending tens of millions of dollars on space sponsorships, so the opportunity to sponsor a FireFly expedition into deep space will be enticing.”

The vision of exploiting space resources to forge a permanent presence there will not be unfamiliar to Centauri Dreams readers. Tumlinson sums up the agenda:

“We will only be visitors in space until we learn how to live off the land there. This is the Deep Space mission – to find, harvest and process the resources of space to help save our civilization and support the expansion of humanity beyond the Earth – and doing so in a step by step manner that leverages off our space legacy to create an amazing and hopeful future for humanity. We are squarely focused on giving new generations the opportunity to change not only this world, but all the worlds of tomorrow. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?”

So we have asteroid sample return as part of the mix, but the larger strategy calls for the use of asteroid-derived products to power up space industries. The company talks about using asteroid-derived propellants to supply eventual manned missions to Mars and elsewhere, with Gump likening nearby asteroid resources to the Iron Range of Minnesota, which supplied Detroit’s car industry in the 20th Century. DSI foresees supplying propellant to communication satellites to extend their working lifetime, estimating that each extra month is worth $5 million to $8 million per satellite. The vision extends to harvesting building materials for subsequent technologies like space-based power stations. Like I said, the key word is ‘ambitious.’

“Mining asteroids for rare metals alone isn’t economical, but makes sense if you already are processing them for volatiles and bulk metals for in-space uses,” said Mark Sonter, a member of the DSI Board of Directors. “Turning asteroids into propellant and building materials damages no ecospheres since they are lifeless rocks left over from the formation of the solar system. Several hundred thousand that cross near Earth are available.”

In the near-term category, the company has a technology it’s calling MicroGravity Foundry that is designed to transform raw asteroid materials into metal parts for space missions. The 3D printer uses lasers to draw patterns in a nickel-charged gas medium, building up parts from the precision placement of nickel deposits. Because it does not require a gravitational field to work, the MicroGravity Foundry could be a tool used by deep space astronauts to create new parts aboard their spacecraft by printing replacements.

The team behind Deep Space Industries has experience in commercial space activities. Tumlinson, a well-known space advocate, was a founding trustee of the X Prize and founder of Orbital Outfitters, a commercial spacesuit company. Gump has done space-related TV work, producing a commercial shot on the International Space Station. He’s also a co-founder of Transformational Space Corporation. Geoffrey Notkin is the star of ‘Meteorite Men,’ a TV series about hunting meteorites. The question will be how successful DSI proves to be in leveraging that background to attract both customers and corporate sponsors.

With such bold objectives, I can only wish Deep Space Industries well. The idea of exploiting inexpensive CubeSat technology and combining it with continuing progress in miniaturizing digital tools is exciting, but the crucial validation will be in those early Firefly missions and the data they return. If DSI can proceed with the heavier sample return missions it now envisions, the competitive world of asteroid prospecting (think Planetary Resources) will have taken another step forward. Can a ‘land rush’ for asteroid resources spark the public’s interest, with all the ramifications that would hold for the future of commercial space? Could it be the beginning of the system-wide infrastructure we’ll have to build before we think of going interstellar?


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • GaryChurch February 7, 2013, 23:00

    “No point in bothering with the moon first.”

    What part of “a lot of energy” do you not understand Eniac?
    If you want to melt down ore into metal like titanium or even aluminum you are going to need more than mirrors and the yellow dot that is the sun from the asteroid belt.
    Want to bring it all the way back to Earth or Lunar orbit? Maybe….in several decades when there is something like a beam propulsion solar system superhighway- but not until that happens.

    The Moon is still the first place to go.

  • ljk February 13, 2013, 0:42


    “Coming Asteroid Could Be Worth $195 Billion” says Deep Space


    The asteroid making an extremely close pass of Earth this week could be worth up to $195 billion in metals and propellant, if it were in a different orbit, Deep Space Industries (DSI) announced today. Unfortunately, the path of asteroid 2012 DA14 is tilted relative to Earth, requiring too much energy to chase it down for mining.

    “Coming Asteroid Could Be Worth $195 Billion” says Deep Space

    McLean, VA | Posted on February 12th, 2013

    Sending fuel, water, and building materials into high Earth orbit costs at least $10 million per ton, even using new lower-cost launch vehicles just now coming into service.

    “Getting these supplies to serve communications satellites and coming crewed missions to Mars from in-space sources like asteroids is key – if we are going to explore and settle space,” said Rick Tumlinson, Chairman of DSI. “While this week’s visitor isn’t going the right way for us to harvest it, there will be others that are, and we want to be ready when they arrive.”

    How valuable might such an asteroid be – were it harvestable? According to DSI experts, if 2012 DA14 contains 5% recoverable water, that alone – in space as rocket fuel – might be worth as much as $65 billion. If 10% of its mass is easily recovered iron, nickel and other metals, that could be worth – in space as building material – an additional $130 billion.

    If the advent of reusable launch vehicles causes future prices to fall to 20% of today’s levels, an asteroid the size of 2012 DA14 would still be worth $39 billion, and the cost of launching hardware to retrieve and process it would be much lower.

    “Even with conservative estimates of the potential value of any given asteroid, if we begin to utilize them in space they are all the equivalent of a space oasis for refueling and resupply,” said Deep Space CEO David Gump. “Yet we know very little about most of them. That’s why Deep Space is starting off with a prospecting campaign using very affordable cubesat technologies and hitching cheap rides to space as secondary payloads on the launch of large communications satellites.”

    While its trajectory past Earth is known with precision, almost everything else about the rock is uncertain. It could mass as little as 16,000 tons or as much as one million tons. The great range stems from uncertainties about its diameter – from 25 yards to 100 yards – and its composition. While probably mainly stony in nature, it could vary widely in the amount of water and metals it contains. Astronomers have measured how much light is being reflected from its surface but the question mark is the reflectivity of that surface. If the surface is very dark, reflecting that much light means it must be a big object. Conversely, if the surface is light, even a small asteroid could reflect a lot of light.

    “This is thought to be a L-class asteroid, and this type generally reflects about 20 percent of the light that strikes it,” said Stephen Covey, DSI’s Director of Research and Development. “That would make its diameter about 50 yards and mass about 130,000 tons.”

    Deep Space Industries will be harvesting asteroids to create propellant to extend the working life of communications satellites, to supply future explorers and to build habitats and other structures in space. However, 2012 DA14 is not one of its targets as its orbit around the Sun is significantly inclined relative to that of the Earth around the Sun, so that reaching it would take too much energy. Deep Space believes there are thousands of near Earth asteroids that will be easier to chase down than this one.

    “The challenge right now is to get out there soon so we can inspect and sample them,” said Tumlinson. “Whether for mining, science or planetary defense, we really need to begin getting close up and personal with these objects.”
    Deep Space Industries plans to send small probes called FireFlies to examine asteroids and allow comparisons with readings taken by Earth and space based telescopes. They are to be followed by DragonFly sample return missions, to lay the groundwork for potential space mining operations in the 2020 time frame.




    Copyright © Deep Space Industries

  • ljk February 15, 2013, 10:31

    14 February 2013

    Text & Images:



    As an asteroid roughly half as large as a football field — and with energy equal to a large hydrogen bomb — readies for a fly-by of Earth on Friday, two California scientists are unveiling their proposal for a system that could eliminate a threat of this size in an hour. The same system could destroy asteroids 10 times larger than the one known as 2012 DA14 in about a year, with evaporation starting at a distance as far away as the Sun.

    UC Santa Barbara physicist and professor Philip M. Lubin, and Gary B. Hughes, a researcher and professor from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, conceived DE-STAR, or Directed Energy Solar Targeting of Asteroids and exploRation, as a realistic means of mitigating potential threats posed to the Earth by asteroids and comets.

    “We have to come to grips with discussing these issues in a logical and rational way,” said Lubin, who began work on DE-STAR a year ago. “We need to be proactive rather than reactive in dealing with threats. Duck and cover is not an option. We can actually do something about it and it’s credible to do something. So let’s begin along this path. Let’s start small and work our way up. There is no need to break the bank to start.”

    Described as a “directed energy orbital defense system,” DE-STAR is designed to harness some of the power of the Sun and convert it into a massive phased array of laser beams that can destroy, or evaporate, asteroids posing a potential threat to Earth. It is equally capable of changing an asteroid’s orbit — deflecting it away from Earth, or into the Sun — and may also prove to be a valuable tool for assessing an asteroid’s composition, enabling lucrative, rare-element mining. And it’s entirely based on current essential technology.

    “This system is not some far-out idea from Star Trek,” Hughes said. “All the components of this system pretty much exist today. Maybe not quite at the scale that we’d need — scaling up would be the challenge — but the basic elements are all there and ready to go. We just need to put them into a larger system to be effective, and once the system is there, it can do so many things.”

    The same system has a number of other uses, including aiding in planetary exploration.

    In developing the proposal, Lubin and Hughes calculated the requirements and possibilities for DE-STAR systems of several sizes, ranging from a desktop device to one measuring 10 kilometers, or six miles, in diameter. Larger systems were also considered. The larger the system, the greater its capabilities.

    For instance, DE-STAR 2 — at 100 meters in diameter, about the size of the International Space Station — “could start nudging comets or asteroids out of their orbits,” Hughes said. But DE-STAR 4 — at 10 kilometers in diameter, about 100 times the size of the ISS — could deliver 1.4 megatons of energy per day to its target, said Lubin, obliterating an asteroid 500 meters across in one year.

    The speed of interplanetary travel — far beyond what is possible with chemical propellant rockets used today — could be increased with this sized system, according to Lubin. It could also power advanced ion drive systems for deep space travel, he said. Able to engage multiple targets and missions at once, DE-STAR 4 “could simultaneously evaporate an asteroid, determine the composition of another, and propel a spacecraft.”

    Larger still, DE-STAR 6 could enable interstellar travel by functioning as a massive, orbiting power source and propulsion system for spacecraft. It could propel a 10-ton spacecraft at near the speed of light, allowing interstellar exploration to become a reality without waiting for science fiction technology such as “warp drive” to come along, Lubin said.

    “Our proposal assumes a combination of baseline technology — where we are today — and where we almost certainly will be in the future, without asking for any miracles,” he explained. “We’ve really tried to temper this with a realistic view of what we can do, and we approached it from that point of view. It does require very careful attention to a number of details, and it does require a will to do so, but it does not require a miracle.”

    Recent and rapid developments in highly efficient conversion of electrical power to light allow such a scenario now, Lubin said, when just 20 years ago it would not have been realistic to consider.

    “These are not just back-of-the-envelope numbers,” Hughes concurred. “They are actually based on detailed analysis, through solid calculations, justifying what is possible. And it’s all available under current theory and current technology.

    “There are large asteroids and comets that cross the Earth’s orbit, and some very dangerous ones going to hit the Earth eventually,” he added. “Many have hit in the past and many will hit in the future. We should feel compelled to do something about the risk. Realistic solutions need to be considered, and this is definitely one of those.”

    Three UCSB undergraduate students are assisting Lubin and Hughes with the DE-STAR project: Johanna Bible and Jesse Bublitz, both from the College of Creative Studies, and chemistry major Joshua Arriola.

    PIO Contacts:

    Shelly Leachman
    +1 (805) 893-8726

    George Foulsham
    +1 (805) 893-3071

    Science Contacts:

    Philip Lubin
    +1 (805) 893-8432

    Gary Hughes
    +1 (805) 756-5648

  • James Jason Wentworth February 16, 2013, 8:03

    Eniac wrote below (in response to the following):

    [Also, another possible washing fluid for cleaning the dust off spacesuits and outdoor equipment (that’s brought indoors for maintenance and servicing) is freon, and like the water it could be separated from the dust and re-used. Ethanol might also be useful for this; the alcohol-soaked silicate dust could be burned to yield water vapor (which could be condensed for drinking) and carbon dioxide, which could be separated into solid carbon and oxygen.]

    “Unlikely. All of these more complex molecules would have to be synthesized. Chlorine and flourine required for freon are much more precious than water. So is carbon, needed for the alcohol. And to synthesize it, use it for washing, just to then burn it again? With oxygen that was won from water or silicates at high energy cost? Does not make much sense, really. For washing off dust, water is it, I am afraid. Or, air. Just blow and vacuum the stuff.”

    During the lunar day there is plenty of solar light and heat to use to drive chemical synthesis reactions, so creating and then burning some compounds (which would be closed-cycle anyway) would entail no loss, since the solar energy used to create the compounds is free. I was considering burning the ethanol-soaked “washed-off” lunar dust as a starting point, if desired, to generate water, solid carbon, and oxygen. The freon–either brought from Earth or synthesized on the Moon–could be filtered and reused after being used to wash lunar dust off spacesuits and other items that are brought indoors for servicing. I am not suggesting either method as ideal (water, electromagnets, or other dust-removing methods might be better), but just ruminating over possible solutions to the lunar dust problem.

  • James Jason Wentworth February 16, 2013, 9:13

    Eniac wrote (in part):

    “The fact is, Near Earth Asteroids are more accessible than the lunar surface. Both in terms of getting there, and even more so in terms of returning things to Earth.”

    First, I thank you for posting the information on rotating tethers (in response to my query above) a few days ago–I apologize for not doing so sooner. Regarding the apparent asteroids vs. Luna dilemma:

    I don’t see it as having to be an “either/or” proposition, but rather a “this/and” or a “first/then” course of action. For manufacturing heavy (or complicated) equipment and spaceships, the Moon is preferable because its 1/6 Earth gravity facilitates the construction & use of metal foundries, factory tooling, and support equipment for people such as washing machines, kitchens, and normal gravity-operated indoor plumbing…*but*:

    This does *not* mean that we can’t or shouldn’t go out to the asteroids (especially Near-Earth Asteroids) to gather metals and water -before- setting up shop on Luna. Indeed, doing so first could accelerate lunar development as well as jump-start closer-to-home services such as refueling satellites orbiting the Earth (by using water-fueled electrothermal thrusters on new satellites) and/or providing water and/or LOX/LH2 (for spacecraft’s fuel cells or rocket engines). Using 3-D printing, metal replacement parts for space stations or satellites could be produced from asteroidal metals and brought back to Earth orbit. Also:

    Luna could be used as a storage depot for asteroidal ice. Rotating tethers or lunar space elevators would enable inexpensive transfer of wrapped (to protect them from the solar heat) asteroidal ice “ingots” down to the lunar surface, where they could be cached in the permanently-shadowed craters at the poles. (Near-polar lunar space elevators [studies show that they’ll work in that low gravity–the Wikipedia article has details] would be ideal for delivering the ice to polar storage sites.) With even a rudimentary road system between rotating tether “touch points” on the equator and the poles, the ice could be transported to the poles using solar-powered “trucks.” As well:

    Rotating tethers and/or solar-powered space elevator “cable climbers” could deliver supplies of water or LOX/LH2 up to the lunar L1 or L2 points as needed, where depots could be established to fuel and supply spacecraft bound for other asteroids, including ones in the Main Belt. Later on, electromagnetic launchers on the Moon’s surface could be used to launch such spaceships to their destinations, and the competition between the three methods would help keep their usage prices low.

  • Eniac February 17, 2013, 12:43

    James Jason Wentworth: I strongly suspect that once we start processing materials in space, we will find that gravity is a nuisance more than help in almost all types of processing. In those few cases where we do need it, a centrifuge will do just fine and has a much greater range of g’s. Storing ice or fuel is much more easily accomplished in deep space, where the equilibrium temperature behind a thin sunshade will be just a few K above the cosmic background, perfect not only for ice but also LOX and LH. All the same materials found on the moon are also found on asteroids, without the gravity well. Some asteroids and comets get closer to the sun than the moon, and there would be plenty of energy to process them. For others, we can use slings to cheaply fling the ore to the inner system for deep space processing.

    The more I think about it, the more I have to conclude there is not a single reason to do things on the moon, except for the human experience of standing on another world, perhaps. Or driving around on it. An ATV paradise, perhaps? Or, as Gary suggests, a nuclear testing ground. Probably not both….

  • James Jason Wentworth February 18, 2013, 6:58

    Eniac wrote:

    “James Jason Wentworth: I strongly suspect that once we start processing materials in space, we will find that gravity is a nuisance more than help in almost all types of processing. In those few cases where we do need it, a centrifuge will do just fine and has a much greater range of g’s. Storing ice or fuel is much more easily accomplished in deep space, where the equilibrium temperature behind a thin sunshade will be just a few K above the cosmic background, perfect not only for ice but also LOX and LH. All the same materials found on the moon are also found on asteroids, without the gravity well. Some asteroids and comets get closer to the sun than the moon, and there would be plenty of energy to process them. For others, we can use slings to cheaply fling the ore to the inner system for deep space processing.”

    I’ve no argument with any of that. Also, space elevators *really* “shine” when used on asteroids. While I think solutions can be found for it, dust clouds generated by asteroid mining activities might be a serious problem, but not a “show-stopper” by any means. Also, asteroids with higher orbital inclinations and eccentricities might be slowly “tamed” into more accessible solar orbits via solar mirrors (vaporizing a bit of the surface layer to create thrust) or gravity tractor spacecraft, while more easily-accessible asteroids are mined first. A wine vineyard might be a good comparison to an asteroid mining venture (with the time and effort involved in getting the operation up and running), after which the operation would make money at pretty regular intervals. And:

    “The more I think about it, the more I have to conclude there is not a single reason to do things on the moon, except for the human experience of standing on another world, perhaps. Or driving around on it. An ATV paradise, perhaps? Or, as Gary suggests, a nuclear testing ground. Probably not both….”

    I can think of a few (Neil P. Ruzic listed many more in his book “The Case for Going to the Moon”). While they could probably also be done on asteroids or on/by spacecraft orbiting the Sun, the Moon’s proximity to Earth (for shipping certain Earth-bound products) and large surface area would be advantages. They are:

    [1] The Earth-shielded, farside radio astronomy observatory;

    [2] Using large, metallized mylar Ruzic cryostats (and/or large numbers of small ones) to make products requiring deep cryogenic temperatures;

    [3] Producing spaceships using local materials, utilizing the free vacuum for vacuum-welding metal components;

    [4] Meteorology (Earth’s meteorology, that is)–setting up large, high-resolution optical and infrared instruments on Luna to monitor Earth’s weather;

    [5] Such Earth-directed, large high-resolution telescopes would also be useful for surveying Earth resources and monitoring military operations (although their “spying coverage” times would be predictable);

    [6] Large X-Ray telescopes emplaced in craters, using the crater walls as occulters in order to precisely determine the positions of invisible X-Ray astronomical objects;

    [7] Growing food for human space travelers in the inner solar system (later on, Mars settlers might do this to supply travelers to & from the Main Asteroid Belt and beyond);

    [8] Lunar tourism, and:

    [9] Lunar “Club Med”–as Neil P. Ruzic predicted in “Where the Winds Sleep,” older people may move to the Moon (once larger communities are established) “to add life to their years and years to their lives.”

  • GaryChurch February 24, 2013, 19:10

    “I have to conclude there is not a single reason to do things on the moon, except -, as Gary suggests, a nuclear testing ground.”

    The main reason is that chemical propulsion is essentially useless for human deep space flight. It is, however, ideal for getting to the Moon from Earth. There is no place else to go and no place else to assemble, test, and launch nuclear missions to the outer solar system; the Moon is first.

  • ljk April 11, 2013, 9:14

    Asteroid Retrieval Feasibility Study from 2012:


    NASA Administrator Bolden’s Statement on the NASA FY 2014 Budget Request – a quote:

    “We are developing a first-ever mission to identify, capture and
    relocate an asteroid. This mission represents an unprecedented
    technological feat that will lead to new scientific discoveries and
    technological capabilities and help protect our home planet. This
    asteroid initiative brings together the best of NASA’s science,
    technology and human exploration efforts to achieve the president’s
    goal of sending humans to an asteroid by 2025. We will use existing
    capabilities such as the Orion crew capsule and Space Launch System
    (SLS) rocket, and develop new technologies like solar electric
    propulsion and laser communications — all critical components of
    deep space exploration.”

  • ljk May 29, 2013, 19:11



    Planetary Resources Embarks on First Crowdfunded Space Telescope

    Posted by Marc Boucher Posted May 29, 2013 1:49 PM

    Less than a couple of hours after announcing its plan to crowd source a space telescope, the Planetary Resources Kickstarter campaign has already reached 10% of its goal of $1,000,000.

    From the press release issued by Planetary Resources:

    Planetary Resources, Inc., the asteroid mining company, has launched a campaign for the world’s first crowdfunded space telescope to provide unprecedented public access to space and place the most advanced exploration technology into the hands of students, scientists and a new generation of citizen explorers.

    Planetary Resources’ technical team, who worked on every recent U.S. Mars lander and rover, will provide direct access to an ARKYD space telescope making space widely available for inspiration, exploration and research. “I’ve operated rovers and landers on Mars, and now I can share that incredible experience with everyone. People of any age and background will be able to point the telescope outward to investigate our Solar System, deep space, or join us in our study of near-Earth asteroids,” said Chris Lewicki, President and Chief Engineer, Planetary Resources, Inc.

    Using Kickstarter, a platform for supporting innovative projects, Planetary Resources has set a campaign goal of US$1 million. The company will use the proceeds to launch the telescope, fund the creation of the public interface, cover the fulfillment costs for all of the products and services listed in the pledge levels, and fund the immersive educational curriculum for students everywhere. Any proceeds raised beyond the goal will allow for more access to classrooms, museums and science centers, and additional use by individual Kickstarter backers.

  • ljk June 12, 2013, 15:35

    New Tunguska research

    PhysOrg, 6/12/13:

    “Researchers claim reexamination of rock samples confirms meteoritic
    origin of Tunguska cosmic body”

    “A team of researchers with members from the U.S., Germany and Ukraine
    is claiming in a paper they’ve had published in the journal Planetary
    and Space Science, that they have found evidence to prove the Tunguska
    event was caused by a meteor that exploded in the atmosphere above the
    Russian plain.

    The Tunguska event was, of course, an explosion that occurred in a
    remote part of Siberia in 1908. Most scientists agree that it was
    caused by either a meteor or comet strike, and as such, was the
    largest to ever strike our planet in recorded history. The blast
    flattened thousands of acres of forestland and led to numerous
    research efforts to determine its cause. Due to the immense power of
    the blast however, no physical evidence of the source of the blast has
    ever been found. Now, however, the researchers in this new effort
    claim they have found proof that some rocks found by a Ukrainian
    scientist back in 1978 are remnants of the meteor that caused the
    massive explosion.”