National Geographic Daily News
An illustration of a space station built on to an asteroid.

An artist's conception showing the construction of a large revolving space station.

Illustration courtesy Bryan Versteegm, DSI

Marc Kaufman

for National Geographic News

Published January 22, 2013

Encouraged by new space technologies, a growing fleet of commercial rockets, and the vast potential to generate riches, a group of entrepreneurs announced Tuesday that they planned to mine the thousands of near-Earth asteroids in the coming decades.

The new company, Deep Space Industries (DSI), is not the first in the field, nor is it the most well-financed. But with their ambition to become the first asteroid prospectors, and ultimately miners and manufacturers, they are aggressively going after what Mark Sonter, a member of DSI's board of directors, called "the main resource opportunity of the 21st century." (Related: "Asteroid Hunter to Be First Private Deep-Space Mission?")

Prospecting using miniaturized "cubesat" probes the size of a laptop will begin by 2015, company executives announced. They plan to return collections of asteroid samples to Earth not long after.

"Using low cost technologies, and combining the legacy of [the United States'] space program with the innovation of today's young high tech geniuses, we will do things that would have been impossible just a few years ago," said Rick Tumlinson, company chairman and a longtime visionary and organizer in the world of commercial space.

"We sit in a sea of resources so infinite they're impossible to describe," Tumlinson said.

Added Value

There are some 9,000 asteroids described as "near-Earth," and they contain several classes of resources that entrepreneurs are now eyeing as economically valuable.

Elements such as gold and platinum can be found on some asteroids. But water, silicon, nickel, and iron are the elements expected to become central to a space "economy" should it ever develop.

Water can be "mined" for its hydrogen (a fuel) and oxygen (needed for humans in space), while silicon can be used for solar power systems, and the ubiquitous nickel and iron for potential space manufacturing. (See an interactive on asteroid mining.)

Sonter, an Australian mining consultant and asteroid specialist, said that 700 to 800 near-Earth asteroids are easier to reach and land on than the moon.

DSI's prospecting spacecraft will be called "FireFlies," a reference to the popular science fiction television series of the same name. The FireFlies will hitchhike on rockets carrying up communication satellites or scientific instruments, but they will be designed so that they also have their own propulsion systems. The larger mining spacecraft to follow have been named "DragonFlies."

Efficiencies

It all sounds like science fiction, but CEO David Gump said that the technology is evolving so quickly that a space economy can soon become a reality. Providing resources from beyond Earth to power spacecraft and keep space travelers alive is the logical way to go.

That's because the most expensive and resource-intensive aspect of space travel is pushing through the Earth's atmosphere. Some 90 percent of the weight lifted by a rocket sending a capsule to Mars is fuel. Speaking during a press conference at the Santa Monica Museum of Flying in California, Gump said that Mars exploration would be much cheaper, and more efficient, if some of the fuel could be picked up en route. (Related: "7 Ways You Could Blast Off by 2023.")

Although there is little competition in the asteroid mining field so far, DSI has some large hurdles ahead of it. The first company to announce plans for asteroid mining was Planetary Resources, Inc. in spring 2012—the group is backed by big-name investors such as Google's Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, filmmaker James Cameron, and early Google investor Ram Shriram. DSI is still looking for funding.

Owning Asteroids

While these potential space entrepreneurs are confident they can physically lay claim to resources beyond Earth, there remain untested legal issues.

The United Nations Space Treaty of 1967 expressly forbids ownership of other celestial bodies by governments on Earth. But American administrations have long argued that the same is not true of private companies and potential mining rights.

While an American court has ruled that an individual cannot own an asteroid—as in the case of Gregory Nemitz, who laid claim to 433 Eros as a NASA spacecraft was approaching it in 2001—the question of extraction rights has not been tested.

Moon rocks brought back to Earth during the Apollo program are considered to belong to the United States, and the Russian space agency has sold some moon samples it has returned to Earth—sales seen by some as setting a precedent.

Despite the potential for future legal issues, DSI's Gump said his group recently met with top NASA officials to discuss issues regarding technology and capital, and came away optimistic. "There's a great hunger for the idea of getting space missions done with smaller, cheaper 'cubesat' technology and for increased private sector involvement."

Everyone involved acknowledged the vast challenges and risks ahead, but they see an equally vast potential—both financial and societal.

"Over the decades, we believe these efforts will help expand the civilization of Earth into the cosmos, and change what it means to be a citizen of this planet," Tumlinson said.

10 comments
roy alexandre
roy alexandre

we should think about our problem here on earth before trying to go there and mine ressource on asteroid what a stupid idea. Our gouvernement is filled with corruption, we are not even taking care of the pollution on earth, i think we dont have the good value at the right places when we will be self suffisant and that everybody here on OUR planet will be fine, then it would be a great idea but for now i personally think that it is useless its just another way to make money

Ed Wapole
Ed Wapole

Actually in the case of Nemitz's lawsuit, the court declined to adjudicate the underlying issue of property right in space and making property claims to space resources.  What the Judicial department did was say Nemitz "failed to state a claim for which relief can be granted".  That refers to the claims made in his lawsuit, not the actual property claim Nemitz made for asteroid 433 Eros.  It is a common defense the government pulls out of the hat when they do not want to address an issue.  See Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6).  Also visit Nemitz's website about his property claim at www.erosproject.com

Rodman Papros
Rodman Papros

Our environment is dying because our waste management fails not because we're running out of resources. Now we're planning to bring in waste from space. Those who thought of this strategy on finding energy sources should have initially thought of how to use space for damping waste and not the other way around.

Roney Thomas
Roney Thomas

wish that they would do it fast so that we will sit on pile resources

Guy Dube
Guy Dube

It will be very interesting and I am a fan about the TV series Firefly with Nathan Filion.

Gary Bo
Gary Bo

This reminds me the video game - Dead Space.

A story about space minding went wrong

Skype English
Skype English

Yes, indeed expand our horizons. Also, over the decades I've lived I'm astounded by reflection that mining has so little been spoken of at all as a commodity. Well!

Rick Thurman
Rick Thurman

Great, if DSI gets financing then this field may have competition.  The political and legal issues will probably need several points covered in order for development to attract investment past the fanatic stage:

Distinction between territorial sovereignty and property rights;

Distinction between rights to a mass of material and a location, probably in terms of orbital slots;

Distinction between naturally generated masses and technological creations;

Among natural masses, perhaps a distinction between bodies of differing practical sizes: say, small (won't penetrate Earth's atmosphere if anything goes wrong), medium (might make it to Earth's surface, and large (has achieved hydrostatic equilibrium, in other words its natural gravitation has already made it round).  Similiar practical distinctions underlay traditional boundaries and claims within the law of the sea (coastal boundaries were defined by cannon range, and national claims based on islands defined "islands" by whether their highest points still broke through the water at high or low tide.

The UN and others may think that declaring space off limits to nationalism will bring peace, but its possible allowing every space-faring nation to declare their own mining districts to secure strategic minerals for their own economies on Earth may turn out to be more stabilizing.  Military rivalries may be best constrained by the practricalities of mucking up Earth's near space with debris... no point in blowing up your enemy's sats, ships or stations if it all just turns into space junk, in other words shrapnel to whack your assets on some random future orbit.

Vid Beldavs
Vid Beldavs

@Rick ThurmanThe Outer Space Treaty prohibits claiming of mining districts by nation states or by implication entities legally registered in nation states.   I offered a solution to this problem via a claims registry as was developed by the 49ers during the California gold rush.  Further, I suggest that substantiated claims could be used to back a currency that could be used to finance long term industrial development of space.  After all, no one really anticipated that the gold in Fort Knox would be used as long as it can be proven that the gold is there.  So, if it can be proven that the "gold" is in a known asteroid and a cerfiable method exists for its recovery, then does it matter whether the "gold" is in Ft. Knox or in Eros?   See - http://thespacereview.com/article/2226/1

Rex Harrison
Rex Harrison

Space elevator? The idea was put forward decades ago; if cost of getting payloads off-planet is the issue, wouldn't this be a viable alternative?

I've thought for some time that if fuel and supplies are a key issue, why not establish refuelling/supply depots along a designated route? For instance, between Earth and Mars for both manned and unmanned flights?

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