In 1980, there were only 30 known near-earth astroids, now there are 9,500 and more interesting targets are discovered every day (500 per year and accelerating). Over 850 are bigger than 1km ‘planet busters’, over 7800 can be reached easier than the moon.
Current cost of launching stuff to space is $10,000 per kg, so being able to manufacture directly in space with materials harvested from space is a tremendous cost savings. Therefore a ton of material on Earth that would be worth only a few thousand dollars per ton, would be worth several million dollars in orbit for the same ton of material.
Manufacturing in space
Manufacturing in space can be accomplished using their patented micro-gravity foundry, a 3D printer that prints high strength high quality nickel metal parts from any source, including ground nickel asteroid grains.
Once manufactured, completed goods can be delivered anywhere on Earth, and it’s just as easy to drop it in remote locations like Antartica as anywhere else.
Fireflies: fast, one-way prospecting trips starting in 2015. Dragonflies: starting in 2016, 3-4 year round trip missions bringing back 50-100 lb samples, not just from one asteroid but several asteroids. Analysis will be done of not just the chemistry, but also the geography and composition of the asteroids such as how they need to be broken up, how they need to be handled, etc. By 2020, commercial operation will begin for mining large scale, including creating their own fuel for return trips.
Potential commercial uses
- Providing fuel for orbiting satellites is worth $5-8 million for just one extra month of operation per satellite, so this is the first target for revenue.
- Allows high speed internet and ultra high definition tv to everyone on the planet because of allowing great number of large satellites.
- Producing clean energy beamed from orbit from orbitally built solar arrays.
A mission to Mars would be 90% fuel if launched from the ground, so if we can fuel in orbit, would be a great savings and allow larger, riskier (i.e. using new technology instead of tried-and-true old tech) and more numerous missions.
Spacecraft miniaturization, computing power, communication capabilities, existing software have all contributed in making this a viable commercial opportunity now. Especially cubesats with their standard interfaces, low cost, ability to piggyback on other launches, and mainstream university programs teaching cubesat technology.
What’s striking about their proposal is that there is no magic in there: no space elevators, no antimatter drives — all of it is using existing demonstrated and well-known technology. Their final note was the flip side of ‘If you build it they will come’: if no one develops this infrastructure for space development and exploration, no one will plan for it and none of it will happen.
Mining asteroids with robots and lasers…if they only threw in a Joss Whedon reference, it would be perfect…