As asteroid heads for Earth near-miss, space mining companies prepare to boldly dig
Asteroid mining is the latest frontier for space entrepreneurs as scientists monitor a lump of solar system rock hurtling towards an unusually close-call for the planet.
It will be one near-miss for man. But a new breed of space entrepreneurs hope it will presage one giant leap for mankind.
When Asteroid 2012-DA14 hurtles past Earth later this month in what counts as the closest of cosmic calls, US government scientists will be closely tracking its path from Nasa's observatory in the Californian desert. Not least thanks to the attention of Hollywood, the world's interest in asteroid fly-bys has until now been focused on the danger of a cataclysmic collision.
But for aspiring asteroid miners, the lump of debris the size of a school gymnasium that will pass within 17,200 miles of the planet at 18,000mph - closer than many of the satellites circling the planet - symbolises a new commercial opening on the final frontier.
It may sound more like science fiction than imminent reality, but two US companies have been outlining their plans to harvest asteroids for their mineral wealth in what they hope will be a 21st century solar system equivalent of terrestrial gold and oil rushes.They intend to deploy tiny satellites to prospect asteroids and then effectively lasso their targets, transporting them back into Earth's orbit to harvest precious metals and liquids. If successful, they will also fuel a new chapter in human space exploration.
The newest entrant to the fast-developing asteroid mining world is Deep Space Industries, which has just unveiled ambitious plans to dispatch prospecting spacecraft in two years' time and begin extraction by 2020.
"It is exciting to be present at the beginning of the second space age led by commercial businesses," David Gump, Deep Space's chief executive, told The Sunday Telegraph.
"We want to start the process of living off the land in space. The biggest challenge for humanity expanding into space is the cost of launching material from the ground. If you can get the materials in space, that is a huge step towards expanding human civilisation beyond Earth."
His company is now a competitor to Planetary Resources, which launched last year with an impressive roster of investors that includes Larry Page, the co-founder of Internet behemoth Google, Eric Schmidt, Google's chairman, and James Cameron, the Oscar-winning film director and deep-sea explorer.
Under the leadership Eric Anderson, who also co-founded Space Adventures, the company that took seven wealthy individuals to the International Space Station, Planetary Resources has just displayed a model of the miniature spacecraft-telescope that it will use to survey asteroids. ?
The company will partner with Virgin Galactic for Sir Richard Branson's space tourism business to launch the telescopes -- a further indication of how private business is boldly going where until recently only government agencies had ventured.
Deep Space intends to rent space on larger satellites to launch three 55lb mini-satellites called Fireflies in 2015 on six-month missions to take photographs to be transmitted back to Earth for the first up-close images of asteroids.
A year later, they would dispatch slightly larger craft, 70lb Dragonflies, on return expeditions lasting two to four years to dock with asteroids and collect samples of about 100lbs of material.
"Lots of telescopes on Earth are providing remote sensing data but really we're just making informed guesses on the make-up of asteroids," said Mr Gump, a veteran of other space start-ups. "Some are really just rubble piles held together by their own weak gravity."
Equipped with the knowledge that they will garner from these prospecting missions, they hope to identify viable asteroids and bring them back into Earth's orbit to start mining by 2020 using a third generation of spacecraft -- the Harvester.
The technology is in the early days for this third and most challenging stage, Mr Gump said. The company expects to use a large satellite with a grabbing device to secure a hold on an asteroid, a process that has been compared to a lasso-ing in space, then use the power of an onboard engine to corral the rock, removing it from its orbit around the sun, and drag it back to the Earth's orbit. The target asteroids would be small, maybe just 15-20ft across, but if correctly identified by the prospecting craft, they should contain hundreds of tons of material.
The asteroids would not be brought down to Earth itself, an exorbitantly costly procedure, but instead the extraction would be conducted in space, focusing initially on removing liquids that can be converted into fuel.
The company also intends to deploy 3D printer laser technology to convert gases containing nickel into metal.
"The initial market will be to look for asteroids with high water and methane content that can be used for fuel to extend the life of commercial satellites," said Mr Gump. "Every additional month of operation for a satellite is worth $5 to $8 million.
"We want to process the asteroids for metals and fuel in space for the space market."
They will be targeting asteroids that, at a distance of between 2.5 million and 4 million miles away, are defined as "near Earth objects". The Moon orbits at a distance of 250,000 miles, and satellites in geo-stationary orbit are 25,000 miles distant.
Those distances illustrate why asteroid 2012-DA14's fly-by on Feb 15 counts as a near-miss, although Nasa reaffirmed last week that there is no danger of a collision.
"This is record-setting close approach," said Don Yeomans of the agency's near Earth object programme. "It will come interestingly close, closer than many man-made satellites."
The asteroid mining companies are cagey about costs and technology, though with its deep-pocketed backers, Planetary Resources would appear to have no shortage of resources. Deep Space is meanwhile courting investors for the Fireflies phase of its venture, which it estimates will require $20 million.
Some sceptics, however, view their proposals s as out-of-this-world in all respects, given current space capabilities.
"Either or both companies could fall quickly, but success is a long-term proposition," Jeff Foust, editor of the respected Space Review, noted last week. "Turning asteroid mining from science fiction into reality is something that will take years to develop. The bubble could pop quickly, but the boom will take place in slow motion."