Space Mining Company Unveils First Asteroid Prospecting Spacecraft For Interplanetary Mission

Deep Space Industries, an asteroid mining company, announced plans this week to launch their Prospector spacecraft on the first ever interplanetary mining mission by 2020.

The company, based in Mountain View, California, plans to launch the small, 110-pound Prospector-1 spacecraft as part of their ambition to mine near-Earth asteroids, Grant Bonin, Deep Space Industries chief engineer, told Space.com.

“This is intended to be a very low cost first commercial mission to an asteroid.”

The mission is an important first step in the company’s plan to mine near-Earth asteroids for resources it can sell to other space-based companies.

The small mining spacecraft is designed to visit asteroids and look for deposits of ice or water that other spacecraft could use as fuel. Every asteroid is different, so the space mining satellite will probably need to visit a few different space rocks before it finds one with the right minerals, Bonin told Space.com.

“We’ve got about half a dozen very, very attractive targets, which as you might imagine we’re playing very close to our vest.”

The Prospector-1 will launch into low-Earth orbit as a secondary payload aboard a space shuttle and then use its own fuel to break out of Earth’s orbit and head for deep space. It will use water as fuel to approach the selected asteroid and maintain its orbit around the space rock as it looks for ice deposits.

The spacecraft will be equipped with infrared cameras and a neutron spectrometer it will use to map the asteroid’s surface and probe its interior. Then, it will attempt to land on the asteroid at a site likely to contain water so it can conduct additional experiments and claim the space rock for the private mining company.

Deep Space Industries hasn’t announced specific mission dates yet as the timing will depend on which asteroid the company chooses to visit first, but it has promised to launch by the end of the decade, Bonin told SpaceNews.

“We have mission concepts of operation that give us departure windows every year from 2019 to 2022.”

Before that happens, the asteroid mining company will launch a technology demonstration mission using their Prospector-X spacecraft in 2017.

Follow-up missions will use the water and ice extracted from asteroids as fuel to power other mining spacecraft and as a commodity to sell to other space travel companies, Bonin told SpaceNews.

“Water is going to be a key enabler of the cislunar economy. It’s a grand vision, but it’s predicated on the use of space resources.”

A number of companies plan to develop cislunar space, the area between the Earth and the moon commonly called low-Earth orbit, by creating a space transportation system.

The plan, put forward by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing Co., involves using a form of water as fuel to dramatically cut down on the cost of space travel, ULA Spokesman George Sowers, told Space.com.

“I want to buy propellant in space. Once I have a reusable stage and can buy my fuel, then I have the potential to dramatically lower costs to go elsewhere. I can potentially do that whole mission cheaper if I can get propellant cheap enough in low Earth orbit.”

A rocket lifting off from Earth would only need to carry enough propellant to reach orbit if there was a gas station in space where it could refuel before continuing on its mission.

The ULA venture envisions 1,000 people working in space by 2045. The plan involves mining the moon for valuable resources and construction of a lunar tanker to transport the minerals into orbit.

The first private customer looking to buy space-mined resources and their budget for buying resources would set a standard that other space companies could use to develop their own operations.

What do you think of Deep Space Industries plan to mine near-Earth asteroids for valuable resources?

[Image via Deep Space Industries/ Youtube video screenshot]