A second commercial venture to mine the near infinite resources of outer space has been started, and Deep Space Industries (DSI) is promising its spacecraft and 3D printers will allow successful mining operations within a decade.
The venture says that it will have its first class of 55lb (25kg) "FireFly" probes ready for action by 2015, hitching a ride on other commercial launches, and during their six-month missions will explore Near Earth Objects (NEO) for useful materials.
The second generation of larger probes, dubbed DragonFlies, will be sent off by 2016 to land on and mine asteroids, producing around 60lb to 150lbs (27kg to 68kg) of finished cargo on a two to four-year mission. The design for this second class of spacecraft is still under review but FireFly designs are largely sorted.
"While the team here honor and venerate the Firefly TV series, that's not why we named the probes," David Gump, CEO of DSI, told The Register. "They're called FireFlys because they are going to light the way to the asteroids and beyond."
Gump explained that the probes wouldn't just be looking for metals, but also for liquids that can be broken down into oxygen, hydrogen and methane and used to refuel satellites once it has been brought back into the Earth's orbit, adding another revenue stream.
"It cost around $20,000 per kilo to get the fuel for a geosynchronous satellite into position, we're sure we can supply it more cheaply than that," he said. "If you can then extend the lives of these satellites, then operators will be able to save millions of dollars in costs."
Key to the success of the project will be DSI's patent-pending 3D printing technology, dubbed the Microgravity Foundry. He said the tech will make it possible to extract pure nickel blocks from asteroids. The process sees powdered nickel ore fed into the system, which is then formed into units of solid metal, and can also be used to make tools and replacement parts.
"The MicroGravity Foundry is the first 3D printer that creates high-density high-strength metal components even in zero gravity," said Stephen Covey, a co-Founder of DSI and inventor of the process, in an emailed statement. "Other metal 3D printers sinter powdered metal, which requires a gravity field and leaves a porous structure, or they use low-melting point metals with less strength."
But DSI differs from the Planetary Resources scheme announced last year, in that the materials are unlikely to make it down the gravity well and back to Earth (which makes for questionable economics, as El Reg has pointed out). Instead the team wants to leave them in orbit and use these resources to build and resource the next generation of spacecraft that will take mankind permanently off-world.
"We will only be visitors in space until we learn how to live off the land there," said DSI chairman and long-time space activist Rick Tumlinson in a statement. "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.
"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?" ®