Space mining is half way between wishes and reality at this point, with Deep Space Industries (DSI) throwing its corporate hat in the ring recently. The second asteroid mining entrant in a nascent commercial space surge, DSI is an interesting mix of assembled talent, unabashed enthusiasm, unpolished messaging and a touch of unrealistic expectations.
Speaking at the DSI introductory press conference, chairman of the Board, Rick Tumlinson seemingly unwittingly personified the company's spirit by rolling up to the podium with no tie and a shirt tails hanging out underneath his jacket.
DSI doesn't have production contracts signed for its 6U-sized "Firefly" cube sats -- or even office space beyond a McLean apartment address -- but the company says it plans to launch a trio of three probes in 2015 to run recon flybys of near-earth objects (NEOs), followed by a 2016 mission of a "Dragonfly" series to capture and return 50 to 100 pounds of asteroid material to earth.
Image via Shutterstock
Mission cost for a "Firefly" series is $20 million dollars, with profits to be made from government agencies and researchers wanting to get their hands on samples, private collectors who already pay dearly for meteors discovered on earth, and the-all-too-familiar refrain of "corporate sponsorship" -- for naming rights and logo placement.
During a question and answer period with the press, Tumlinson said the six month old company had "some investors, and was "holding the press conference" to find more. Further funding was expected to come from customers and contracts. Company officials said they had briefed senior NASA and Office of Management and Budget (OMB) officials on its plans.
Before delving into all the other stuff thrown out at the press conference, let me propose a reality check: Unknown amount of money in the bank, but seeking more, no R&D facilities or "mission control," needs to build and test three (3) cubesats for a 2015 launch -- 24 months from now, say -- find available rideshare space on (presumably) three different launches. The Magic 8 ball bet would be 2016 before the first satellite gets launched, assuming they can get round one funded.
Dragonfly sample missions may be an easier sell because they're returning actual material for analysis and private sale, but some folks within NASA might not be happy with the low cost. The 2016 OSIRIS-REx mission will likely come in at $900 million to $1 billion once launched, but it will only bring back two ounces of material. A Dragonfly mission will bring back 50 to 100 pounds of sample material.
Like Planetary Resources, DSI will use smaller satellites to proof concepts and hardware before moving into robotic asteroid mining. However, DSI believes there is a considerable market for in-orbit refueling of commercial satellites -- a bit of a stretch, since current satellites use hydrazine for station-keeping, not the liquid oxygen and hydrogen that would be derived from water-bearing asteroids.
Building on the communications satellite industry, DSI would move from producing fuel to building structures for more permanent "communications platforms" -- another required industry mindset shift. Microgravity 3-D printers and other tools would build antennas, solar panels, and other structures to provide incremental capabilities in building out such platforms. Parts produced in orbit would be considerably cheaper than launching their terrestrial counterparts. DSI made a big deal about having patents and processes for a microgravity 3-D printer that would use asteroid nickel and recycled metals, presenting a "long view" of asteroid utilization ultimately leading to construction of space colonies.
Make no mistake; DSI presented a lot of intriguing information during its first press conference about its plans and the potential practicality of conducing asteroid mining. However, the individual presentations felt disconnected and unpolished as a whole, leading me to believe that DSI needs to have its figurative shirt tucked in the next time it steps to the podium.
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Edited by Brooke Neuman