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A Near-Term Commercial Asteroid Mining Mission

Most readers will recall the Spacecoach, developed by Brian McConnell and Alex Tolley and widely discussed in these pages. A workhorse spacecraft designed to shuttle crew and cargo between Earth and nearby planets, the Spacecoach was presented as a way to open up regular commercial use of the Solar System, on the pattern of the stagecoaches that connected towns in the American Old West. One of the many beauties of the Spacecoach was the idea of using reclaimed water and waste gases as a propellant in its electric engines.

With water as a propellant, the mass of the system can be sharply reduced, with an associated reduction in mission costs. Benefits like that don’t stay hidden for long, and I see that Deep Space Industries is likewise attracted to water in the design of its new engine. The Prospector-1 spacecraft, slated for launch by the end of the decade, uses a system DSI calls ‘Comet.’ It expels superheated water to create thrust, a useful idea given the company’s intentions.

“During the next decade, we will begin the harvest of space resources from asteroids,” said Daniel Faber, CEO at Deep Space Industries. “We are changing the paradigm of business operations in space, from one where our customers carry everything with them, to one in which the supplies they need are waiting for them when they get there.”

And as Faber’s news release is quick to point out, water will be early on the list of asteroid mining products, meaning that the company realizes the importance of refueling in space. Prospector-1 is being developed as the world’s first commercial interplanetary mining mission, designed to rendezvous with a near-Earth asteroid and evaluate its potential for mining operations. The plan is to key off the earlier Prospector-X mission, which will test DSI technologies in low-Earth orbit as a precursor to the more ambitious Prospector-1.

Screenshot from 2016-08-17 08:34:37

Image: Artist’s conception of Prospector-1, Deep Space Industries’ planned commercial mining mission, approaching a near-Earth asteroid. Credit: DSI.

We’ve had good views of asteroids from a number of missions now, including Galileo, Hayabusa, which landed on the asteroid Itokawa and returned samples to Earth, NEAR-Shoemaker, Deep Space 1 and, of course, Dawn, which continues to provide us with high quality data from Ceres after its long period of operations at Vesta. The list could be extended, for as you can see above, many missions, like Galileo and Cassini, imaged asteroids on their way to their final destinations. It was Jupiter-bound Galileo that discovered that the asteroid Ida had a small satellite (Dactyl). Galileo also imaged the asteroid Gaspra.

Prospector-1’s asteroid is to be chosen from the host of near-Earth asteroids, with mapping operations of its surface and subsurface, visual and infrared imaging and analysis of water content down to a depth of one meter. After the initial science campaign, Prospector-1 will use its water thrusters to make a touchdown on the asteroid for further analysis. “The ability to locate, travel to, and analyze potentially rich supplies of space resources is critical to our plans,” continued Faber. “This means not just looking at the target, but actually making contact.”

In Living Off the Land in Space (Copernicus, 2007), Gregory Matloff, Les Johnson and C Bangs looked at asteroid mining as one possibility in a program of long-term human migration off our planet. The authors drew particular attention to the asteroid 2001 CQ36, a near-Earth object with a diameter estimated to be between 90 and 300 meters. 2001 CQ36 might be an excellent asteroid for an early look by a space mining company, given not only its resource potential but the fact that it is on an orbit that could potentially cause problems.

The asteroid approaches the Earth in 2021, 2022, 2031 and 2033, with the 2031 pass closing to 0.02 AU. Assuming a diameter of 150 meters, Matloff, Johnson and Bangs work out an estimated mass of 3 billion kilograms (this also assumes a spherical shape and a specific gravity intermediate between water and rock). 2001 CQ36 is not the sort of thing we want to see impact the Earth, which makes close study of its composition a long-term insurance policy, just in case we ever have to consider nudging an asteroid like this onto a new trajectory.

From the mining perspective, get just a third of the resources available at 2001 CQ36 and you’ve got a billion kilograms of material for space manufacturing. So doubling up on our objectives would seem to make sense when we have objects that can be studied and exploited from both perspectives. Prospector-1 is small (50 kg when fueled) and low cost, intended as a platform for early asteroid mining studies and other forms of inner system exploration. We’ll track its fortunes closely.

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Neil Stahl August 17, 2016, 12:40

    The UN or something needs to be developing laws that allow, encourage and wisely restrict asteroid mining. They may seem like an endless resource but they’re not and greedy reckless use could muck it up for everyone. Tragedy of the commons writ big.

    • ljk August 17, 2016, 13:39

      I understand and respect what you are saying, but how will the United Nations go about enforcing such laws? I can see Russia and China ignoring them and while the UN does have an Office for Outer Space Affairs, I am not quite certain what they can do outside of numerous meetings and strongly-worded memos.

      http://www.unoosa.org/

      Then get private enterprise involved and we may indeed have a Wild West situation in space. Not sure if that is entirely good or bad yet.

      • Dana Andrews August 17, 2016, 19:02

        Asteroids are in very different orbits and seldom come near anything (there are a few Earth-crossing exceptions). Some miner could completely destroy one asteroid and there are thousands of others that would be untouched.
        The tragedy of the commons does not play here.

        • NS August 18, 2016, 4:54

          I hope that we would do thorough scientific studies before we do any mining etc. We wouldn’t want to alter every asteroid that’s easily accessible before we knew what they were like in their natural states. That would indeed be a tragedy of the (scientific) commons.

          • ljk August 18, 2016, 9:15

            I am sure scientific analyses will be done, if only to determine how valuable each rock in space is. As usual science alone will not be good enough for the powers that be to explore the planetoids and comets. That will just to be part of the price to pay for those who want to study the minor Sol system bodies. Just as lunar scientists had to make due with Apollo, which was really about showing up the Soviets first and foremost. Science was the cover story.

    • Michael Spencer August 18, 2016, 6:44

      There are more than 150 million rocks out there bigger than 100 meters. I get what you are saying about danger and resource depletion, but that’s a lot of rocks. And it doesn’t count the smaller ones, nor ones outside the main Belt.

      • Doug M. August 18, 2016, 12:02

        There are tens of millions of asteroids, but the number of NEOs that are big enough to be worth bothering with is much smaller — probably less than a hundred thousand. (The current NEO count is just over 10,000, and we’ve already found all the large ones. We’re chasing stuff under 300m diameter now.)

        Of NEOs, many are in inclined or otherwise problematic orbits that put them a long way from Earth in terms of time and/or delta-V. The number of objects that are easy to access from Earth is less than 20% of the total.

        So, say twenty thousand. That’s still a large number — but we still don’t know what percentage of asteroids have useful resources that are easily accessible. If it’s “most”, then great. If it’s a much smaller number, then we could end up bickering over a very small pool of “good” NEOs — perhaps as few as a few hundred.

        Doug M.

    • Andrew Palfreyman August 20, 2016, 4:09

      A clear cry out for The Asteroid Police. What modern young man or woman would not leap at the chance? Space, adventure, and hella cool uniforms.

      • ljk August 22, 2016, 12:19

        Who will fund and support them? And who will watch the watchers?

    • Michael Holt August 28, 2016, 20:34

      Having the UN write the rules about space mining is exactly the same thing as having the rules for colonizing the Americas written in 1550 by a bunch of Tibetan monks. We do not need to be hobbled by outsiders who have no stake in the game. We need to first discover what’s out there and whether it can be used profitably. Rules will evolve as the situations make themselves clear.

  • Paul D. August 17, 2016, 12:46

    I think they should look into thrusters that can also operate on methanol. Methanol can be catalytically reformed to CO + 2H2 on hot surfaces, and is also more compatible with high temperature refractory materials (for example, graphite). It’s a bit harder to get in space, but if you have water and organic materials you can make syngas, from which you can make methanol.

  • Hop David August 17, 2016, 14:04

    Yup, it’s the water. Gold and platinum come later.

    It’s a hard concept to get across. “There’s plenty of water in Pacific Ocean!” is a typical response. But that water is at the bottom of an 11.2 km/s gravity well. I’ll try to explain it doesn’t help much with the exponent in the rocket equation. As soon as most readers see the word “exponent” they tune out.

    It’s an uphill battle to get across the notion that something common here on earth will be an extremely valuable space commodity.

    • Michael Spencer August 18, 2016, 6:46

      The Pacific Ocean- indeed all of the Earth oceans- seem big, but the real cache of water is in the outer planets, where the quantity of water dwarfs Earth’s.

      • ljk August 18, 2016, 9:26

        Europa alone has twice the amount of liquid water that Earth does, and it is small than Luna.

        http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap120524.html

        We don’t need to keep draining Earth, but corporations will need the proper motivation to get into the Sol system, namely making lots of money. Those space fans who keep wondering and wishing why an ambiguous someone won’t just give them the money to explore space like in Star Trek or the alleged good ol’ days of the Space Age are frankly being naive.

        And the situation is only going to get worse as the human population keeps rising – 9 billion by 2050 with no plateau in sight as the so-called experts once said but recently reversed on that statement.

  • DJ Kaplan August 17, 2016, 17:57

    I support this, let me start by saying. We need other things, such as planetary meteor defense, and continued exploration of our system’s moons. Let’s see if corporations can be motivated to develop the needed technologies.

    On the other hand, if one of these missions sends debris crashing into Earth, somebody needs to be liable – but that’s always a concern isn’t it?

    • ljk August 18, 2016, 9:21

      Corporations will be motivated only if there is a profit to be made. As I said elsewhere, science will once again have to go along for the ride if they want the money and resources to truly explore the Sol system.

  • Alex Tolley August 17, 2016, 23:55

    20 years ago, John Lewis wrote about using water from NEOs as a propellant in “Mining the Sky”. He assumed either LH2/LOX chemical rockets or nuclear/solar thermal engines. His assumed Isp was 420-> ~ 1200 seconds. The DSI Comet-1 engines have a rather low Isp of up to 200 seconds but are highly scalable from cubesats upwards.
    Lewis seemed to favor using water as a propellant as it dispensed with the mass, energy requirements and reliability issues of electrolysis of water and the gases liquefaction.
    I also note that he thought perhaps half of the NEOs might be dead comets with abundant water supplies.

    Perhaps most importantly, he thought mass costs of $1-10 per pound at LEO were possible by mining NEOs. If we got even within an order of magnitude of these numbers, this would transform the economics of space industrialization. He didn’t include manufacturing costs, but that would be irrelevant for water as life support and particularly for propellant. It will be interesting to see what forms of fabrication methods are most economic in space.

  • David W Cummings August 18, 2016, 0:27

    It seems to me that any easily-reached and easily-diverted comets or asteroids with lots of water should be reserved for possible planet-forming missions on Mars (just to name one of many possible uses of water in space).

    Using water for fuel sounds wasteful to me. Heating up the precious stuff and scattering it forever into the void. What a waste. Isn’t that what happened to all the water on Mars? Stripped away and scattered off into infinity? Talk about your water, water everywhere, nor any a drop to drink.

    Meanwhile, Dawn went to Ceres (where hopefully there is lots of water) and made the journey with an ion-drive propulsion system, an idea that certainly sounds practical to me. Can’t we do more with ion-drives and save water for watering the plants, and the planets, where it belongs?

    • ljk August 18, 2016, 9:17

      Ion drives tend to be slow. If planetoids are going to be visited for profit, no corporation is going to wait years for a return on their investment, especially when we start colonizing the Sol system and demand goes way up.

      • ljk August 18, 2016, 9:19

        Oh yeah and there is lots of water ice in the comet belts, plus as Alex Tolley noted above, many planetoids may actually be dead comets. All the easier to mine.

  • Asteroidenbergbauer August 18, 2016, 7:17

    ->
    Defining a successful commercial asteroid mining program
    http://adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/2015AcAau.108..106A

  • Michael August 19, 2016, 10:07
  • Michael August 19, 2016, 10:32
  • ljk August 22, 2016, 12:13

    NASA’s plan to grab a boulder off an NEO and bring it to lunar orbit, where astronauts aboard their Orion space vessel will explore it and bring home samples:

    http://www.spaceflightinsider.com/space-flight-news/nasa-completes-important-milestone-asteroid-redirect-mission/

    ARM will also have an advanced solar electric propulsion system to demonstrate and even conduct the gravity tractor concept. Certainly key steps towards utilizing the planetoids and comets, which are vital to further space exploration, colonization, and eventually repeating in the wider Milky Way galaxy.

  • Siderite August 24, 2016, 15:34

    Have you read “Inhabit the Solar System”, by Antony Zuppero? It makes colonizing the Solar System using in situ resources sound like a breeze. There is a review on it: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/11/15/zuppero_solar_system/

  • ljk November 1, 2016, 10:01

    Psyche may become one of the most valuable planetoids in the Sol system as humanity expands into its own celestial neighborhood:

    https://uanews.arizona.edu/story/psyche-unexpected-discoveries-metal-world

  • ljk November 8, 2016, 10:44
  • ljk November 28, 2016, 18:11

    Review: Space Mining and Its Regulation

    While mining of the Moon or asteroids may still be many years in the future, actions by the United States and, just recently, Luxembourg, are laying the regulatory framework to support such efforts. Jeff Foust reviews a book that examines the space mining field with a particular emphasis on its compliance with international accords.

    Monday, November 28, 2016

    http://www.thespacereview.com/article/3111/1