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Are There Fortunes to Be Made in Asteroid Mining?

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Will Deep Space Industries change the way we think about the business of space? A look into the possibilities, and insight from one of the company's founders.

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"More than 900 new asteroids that pass near Earth are discovered every year. They can be like the Iron Range of Minnesota was for the Detroit car industry – a key resource located near where it was needed. In this case, metals and fuel from asteroids can expand the in-space industries of this century. That is our strategy." – David Gump, CEO of Deep Space Industries

Deep Space Industries made news this week by announcing its plans to begin space prospecting, to set in motion their goal of mining asteroids for resources such as iron, nickel, and titanium, water, oxygen, hydrogen, and titanium.

As soon as 2015, the company (((which is based where? launched when?))) plans to launch (((how many?))) 55lb spacecraft called FireFlies that will take one way trips to near-Earth asteroids, to take pictures and samples. In 2016, the company will launch DragonFlies, which will be able to take samples and return them to Earth. The end game of these initial prospecting voyages is to being commercial operations by 2020.

Is such a business feasible? It will depend on an involved space presence that doesn't exist yet, on space commerce. Perhaps Deep Space Industries, and its competitor Planetary Resources, will be the sparks that major space program developments need.

Potential Business

(((this section needs a quick intro or set-up))) Mining from asteroids iron, nickel, and titanium could be used for in-space construction (added (((aided?))) by a powerful 3D printer that can work in zero gravity), water and oxygen for sustaining astronauts, and hydrogen and oxygen for rocket fuel.

At a Deep Space Industries press conference on Tuesday, CEO David Gump discussed the market for resources mined in space, saying that the biggest initial market for propellant in space would be in communication satellites. According to Gump, adding an additional month to a satellite's orbit, thanks to fuel made from asteroid-harvested hydrogen and oxygen, would be worth between $5 and $8 million to a company like TK.

Furthermore, he said that a mission to Mars (((i.e. with people? because we did have a mars rover))) would immediately become more realistic with propellant available in space. Current models have 90% of the rocket's weight attributed to propellant, much of that necessary for exit from the Earth's atmosphere. If a rocket could fuel up in space, a Mars voyage might be all the more possible.

The Competition

Planetary Resources is the only major competitor for the newly founded Deep Space and it has a lot behind it, including financial backing from Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) executives Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, as well as from filmmaker James Cameron, who is an advisor for the company.

The company (((based where, launched when?))) has put a lot of focus on platinum group metals such as ruthenium, rhodium, palladium, osmium, iridium, platinum, and unobtainium (just kidding, James Cameron). According to Co-Founder and Co-Chairman Eric Anderson, "The platinum group metals are many orders of magnitude easier to access in the high-concentration platinum asteroids than they are in the Earth's crust." In fact, a single platinum rich asteroid, if it were 1,650 feet wide, would contain the equivalent of all the platinum-group metals ever mined throughout all of human history. An abundance of these metals would heavily drive down costs for the metals, as well as products like defibrillators, hand-held devices, TVs, and other monitors.

Planetary Resources' first step will not be probes like those of Deep Space Industries, but a high powered telescope that will take stock of potential asteroids for mining.

Difficulties and Problems

One of the first problems out of the gate is that companies like Deep Space and Planetary Resources have most potential in there ability to support activity in space, including missions to the Moon, Mars, and an increased space station presence. Given international budget deficits, the spending available for such high profile missions is scarce. For the moment, these new companies are meant to support a full-on space industry that does not exist yet, so (((add "although"?))) upside potential could be huge, and risk could be even bigger.

As for Planetary Resources' platinum-centricity, if the company were to be successful in delivering huge amounts of platinum from near-Earth asteroids, the price of the precious metal would heavily decline. This would be good for anyone looking to buy platinum or products made with the metal, but miners and sellers of the metal would suffer for it.

These companies are speculative: they are betting on a much increased human space presence during the 21st century, and we cannot be sure this will happen. Then again, the birth of these companies may in fact be a spark necessary for the move to space, but that remains to be seen.

Potential

With independent space companies coming to the fore, like Elon Musk's SpaceX and Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, there is definitely movement in (((spell out))) direction, but we must certainly have patience before we see a real full bodied move for space exploration and technology.

The idea here, Deep Space Industries goal, through technology and exploration, is to allow humans to actually become residents of space. According to Chairman Rick Tumlinson:

We will only be visitors in space until we learn how to live off the land there. This is the Deep Space mission – to find, harvest and process the resources of space to help save our civilization and support the expansion of humanity beyond the Earth – and doing so in a step-by-step manner that leverages off our space legacy to create an amazing and hopeful future for humanity.

(((This last paragraph feels like a recap of what you've already said, which we don't do in journalistic pieces. Can you go somewhere else with it instead, or comment on the idea of living in space, or comment on how a person could invest in these companies, if they can.)))) If nothing else, it is exciting and daydream-inducing to read about Deep Space Industries' business plan for mining asteroids. If Deep Space and its competitor Planetary Resources, as well as the commercial space companies, can inspire larger, bolder strides into space technology, we could see asteroid mining become a very profitable, necessary business.

For more writing on the future of space and business, read "Next Year, We May Be Investing in a Mission to Mars"

Follow me on Twitter @JoshWolonick


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