SpaceDev proposes to launch the first private interplanetary spacecraft

Tim Furniss/LONDON

There is a fortune to be made from mining asteroids, believes SpaceDev of Colorado, a private corporation engaged in the commercialisation of space - and it plans to make it.

It is proposing to launch the world's first private interplanetary spacecraft to land on one of the 416 known asteroids which pass close to the Earth (called near-Earth asteroids), and stake a claim for commercial mining. No return of asteroid samples is planned at this stage - just a determination of their value.

The Near Earth Asteroid Prospector (NEAP), the first in a proposed series of SpaceDev deep-space prospectors, will carry five advanced scientific instruments to determine the size, composition and commercial value of an asteroid.

The company will sell the data as well as stake a commercial claim for property rights in space. Any asteroid 2km or more in diameter contains natural resources and minerals which, if found on Earth, would have a value of trillions of dollars, says SpaceDev.

James Benson, chairman of the company, says: "The NEAP will prove that space is a place, not a government programme. Private companies and the public can and should have a direct stake in the opportunities space exploration and development have to offer." Benson is a successful entrepreneur as well as founder of the Compusearch and ImageFast software-systems companies.

Daniel Goldin, Administrator of US space agency NASA, has challenged the private sector to become more involved in space exploration, "-a challenge which goes to the core of SpaceDev's business strategy", says Benson. He claims that he will be able to produce the same high-quality scientific data as government-run programmes "-for about one fourth the cost". Benson briefed Goldin on the project in June and hopes to sell science data to NASA. The agency is not being requested to invest, but just to commit itself to buy the data.

SpaceDev is working on the final mission plan in conjunction with teams of professionals, academics and students from CalSpace, the University of California at San Diego; New Mexico State University; and the University of Texas. Spacecraft design and construction will begin in January 1998. Launch could take place in February 2001, with data return in March 2001. This would mark the fastest start-to-finish time of any deep-space mission.

NEAP instruments

The NEAP will consist of the main spacecraft, and a canister, which will be deposited on the surface. The instruments will include a multi-band camera, neutron spectrometer and an alpha X-ray proton spectrometer. There is room for additional customer instruments and deployable surface experiments. The scientific and geological data collected will be used in staking claims for possible future exploitation.

SpaceDev is discussing the provision of the multi-band camera with Malin Space of La Jollo, California, the provider of the miniature camera aboard the Mars Global Surveyor which arrived in Mars orbit on 11 September.

The University of Chicago Space Science Lab is likely to provide the alpha X-ray instrument, which will determine the elemental composition on the surface. The instrument will be dropped by the NEAP to the surface, perhaps with a miniature rover with its own onboard instruments.

Los Alamos National Laboratory is the provisional supplier of the neutron spectrometer which will detect hydrogen neutrons present near the asteroid. This would indicate the possibility of the presence of water - a substance valuable in space for many purposes, including rocket, spacecraft and satellite propulsion. A similar spectrometer is on board the NASA Lunar Prospector which is scheduled to be launched in November.

Through the experience gained and data collected from the NEAP, SpaceDev hopes to be able to provide high-quality and low-cost missions, space-related consulting, design, planning and support services and products to customers. These would include institutions and governments and private industries such as energy and natural-resource companies.

Space Dev's business strategy is to become the leader in commercial space exploration and its consequent development by private enterprise. The company intends to return up to four times the amount of scientific data per dollar being spent today.

For comparison, the NASA-funded Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous mission spacecraft, now en route to the asteroid Eros, costs about $300 million, about $50-60 million per scientific instrument, for five instruments. The privately funded SpaceDev NEAP mission will cost less than $50 million - about $15 million per instrument for three instruments. This does not include the launch cost, which could be $20-50 million. A request for proposals for launch services will be released in November.

SpaceDev is expected soon to release an announcement of opportunity, offering available space on the NEAP to organisations wishing to place one or more instruments, experiments and microrovers on the NEAP or on the surface of the asteroid.

Source: Flight International