The first commercial space mining operation is on schedule to begin its journey in the year 2020. Earlier this year, Deep Space Industries (DSI) in California took the wraps off its Prospector X, a tiny robotic spacecraft that will park itself in low Earth orbit to test technologies for asteroid prospecting missions in the future.
Those cutting-edge technologies include water-powered propulsion thrusters and optical navigation systems. Prospector X is on target to launch sometime in late 2017. Harvesting water and metals from cosmic space rocks is no simple task, and DSI's team will have to overcome many obstacles to hunt down and plop thier lander down on a hurtling astral body.
“Our thirty year goal is to build cities in space,” Deep Space Industries CEO Daniel Faber told Gizmodo. “You need a lot of raw materials from asteroids to enable that.”
Once in Earth orbit, Prospector spacecrafts will eventually deploy a lander, the Prospector 1, descending onto the surface of a candidate asteroid to search for water, which can be used to create rocket fuel, volatile gases like CO2 and methane, and vital metals to cultivate a more economical space-based supply chain off Earth for future explorers and outer space contractors to utilize. The ability to return large payloads back to Earth is not a viable or safe option or destination for these ultra-heavy payloads of material. Theoretically, a harvester spacecraft will tug a promising asteroid to a space-based processing facility in the final phase of their ambitious asteroid mining plan.
“We’ll begin to survey [the asteroid] from a long way away, getting an idea of the shape,” Faber explained. “As we move closer and get higher quality spectral data, we’ll start to understand where on the surface are the best places to find resources. In the last phase, we have to touch the surface of the asteroid. We need to understand the properties of the rocks—how hard they’re going to be to mine.”
According to the US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act grants companies legal ownership over any resources they’re able to mine in space, something Deep Space Industries will use to their advantage. Under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, the strict letter of the law states that no no company, government or individual can own a celestial body, but now its resources can be laid claim to. Land Ho!!
“We have a list of targets, but we haven’t picked a specific one yet,” Faber said. “We’d like to send prospectors to a bunch of them.”