Who would have thought that within a year, we'd have multiple, competing asteroid mining startups? Deep Space Industries, which will hold its official launch on Tuesday at Santa Monica's Museum of Flying, is the latest of several ambitious private companies to announce plans for the final frontier: in its case, to prospect near-Earth asteroids with an eye towards using materials in them to build a permanent presence in space. In 2015, it says it will begin sending unmanned "FireFly" spacecraft to explore asteroids that fly near Earth, followed by heavier "DragonFly" craft that will bring back samples from likely candidates between 2016 and 2020.

'FireFly' prospecting craft by 2015, zero gravity 3D printers in the future

If these initial steps pan out, DSI has far more ambitious plans. Among them is a "Microgravity Foundry," a 3D printing technology that uses nickel-charged gas to print metal components in zero gravity. The company says a patent is pending, but we're not sure how far along the tech is — though 3D printing has been tried successfully in zero gravity. DSI also promises the same things we've heard from other asteroid mining proponents: if the resources in an asteroid can be successfully recovered, they'll provide things like fuel or metals to current-generation spacecraft. "In a decade," a statement says, "Deep Space will be harvesting asteroids for metals and other building materials, to construct large communications platforms to replace communications satellites, and later solar power stations to beam carbon-free energy to consumers on Earth."

Unlike the deep-pocketed Planetary Resources, Deep Space Industries is looking for commercial sponsorship

In terms of the feasibility of its claims, DSI is roughly on par with Planetary Resources, which announced its own asteroid mining plans in April 2012. Neither company has a proven record like breakout success SpaceX, but nor are their goals as fanciful as the Golden Spike proposal to profitably reach the Moon by 2020. What Deep Space Industries may lack, however, is funding. Planetary Resources was backed by millionaire director James Cameron and Google executives Larry Page and Eric Schmidt among others; DSI hasn't indicated that it has access to pockets nearly so deep, and it's looking for sponsorship for the initial missions. CEO David Gump (previously of Astrobotic, another space exploration company) says that "the public will participate in FireFly and DragonFly missions via live feeds from Mission Control, online courses in asteroid mining sponsored by corporate marketers, and other innovative ways to open the doors wide," helping to fund the flights. No deals have been disclosed, though DSI says there's "interest" from NASA and others.

Besides Gump, we haven't yet got a full list of the people behind Deep Space Industry, but it's chaired by space luminary Rick Tumlinson, an early space tourist and founding trustee of the X Prize. Geoffrey Notkin of the Science Channel show Meteorite Men and space analyst Mark Sonter are also part of the project, and 3D printing entrepreneur James Wolff is listed as a co-founder elsewhere online. We're still awaiting more details from the conference itself, which will be streamed live at Spacevidcast starting at 12PM ET.