A newly-formed company, Deep Space Industries, has announced a plan to mine asteroids flying by the Earth.
The company intends to send small, lightweight modified cubesats (small, standardized, modular satellites) on missions to mineral-rich asteroids as they pass near Earth's orbit, returning small samples to Earth orbit for exploitation. Asteroids are often rich in valuable commodities like platinum, gold and more exotic materials that sell at high prices.
"The number of asteroids that are more energetically accessible than the moonis 1700. We can get to those asteroids easier than we can get to the moon," says Deep Space Industries.
The company plans two models of satellite. The smaller seeker vehicle, called Firefly, will be used for exploration and examination. The larger vehicles, called DragonFly, will return materials to Earth. The company hopes to launch the first Fireflies in 2015. Dragonflies, beginning in 2016, will launch at lower speeds, thus taking several years to return to Earth orbit, returning a maximum payload of 45kg (100lb).
©Deep Space Industries
"Once we have the data that tells us which asteroids are valuable and how they're structured, we send out harvester missions to bring back a few hundred tons at a time, and 2020 we can get into commercial operation and start producing products for customers," says the company.
The vehicles will have components manufactured in low Earth orbit in an in-space manufacturing facility, and possibly be used to process materials recovered from asteroid as well. Some parts, the company proposes, could be built in orbit and sent back to Earth to quickly repair remote outposts or ships at sea.
Deep Space Industries has some investors, but declined to discuss amounts other than to say that most money will be recouped after the first successful flights.
A competing company, called Planetary Resources, opened in 2012 with similar ambitions.