Deep Space Industries — a spaceflight company intent on mining asteroids for resources — announced its plans this week to conduct the first private mission to an asteroid before the end of the decade. For the inaugural trip, the company is developing a spacecraft called Prospector-1, a small 110-pound vehicle designed to travel to and then land on a near-Earth asteroid. If successful, it would be the first ever commercial vehicle to pull of such a feat.
Understanding what asteroids are made of
Prospector-1 won’t be doing any actual mining on this trip, though. Its purpose is to get a better understanding of what asteroids are made of. The spacecraft’s goal is to map its target asteroid, looking for deposits of water and other resources with visible and infrared cameras. It will then touch down on the space rock to study the asteroid’s geography. "The ability to locate, travel to, and analyze potentially rich supplies of space resources is critical to our plans," Daniel Faber, CEO at Deep Space Industries (DSI), said in a statement. "This means not just looking at the target, but actually making contact."
Before Prospector-1 can fly, however, the company wants to test out the "low-cost" technologies needed to make the vehicle work. DSI has teamed up with the government of Luxembourg to launch a precursor spacecraft, called Prospector-X, into lower Earth orbit sometime in 2017. Prospector-X will be testing out crucial features needed for its successor, such as a navigation system and avionics that are tolerant to deep-space radiation.
An artistic rendering of how Prospector-1 will work. (Deep Space Industries)
Another key aspect of these Prospector vehicles is that they are propelled by water; they expel hot water vapor to move forward, according to DSI. That’s important because it means that future water-propelled mining vehicles could potentially "refuel" in space, using water gathered from asteroids.
DSI still hasn’t picked the asteroid that Prospector-1 will visit, and the company doesn’t have a target date for the mission just yet. But if DSI can pull this off, the company plans to launch future spacecraft that will eventually extract water from asteroids. And thanks to the recently passed US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, the company will be guaranteed rights to what it gathers in space. Eventually, DSI hopes to use the water and minerals it gets from asteroids to make fuel, drinking water, and other supplies.