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Asteroid mining: Second company announces plans. Time to stake a claim? (+video)

Deep Space Industries said Tuesday it plans to launch small prospector missions to asteroids beginning in 2015. The goal of asteroid mining is to make space exploration more affordable.

By Peter SpottsStaff writer / January 22, 2013

Meteorites sit on a display table at the Museum of Flying in Santa Monica, Calif., Jan. 22, where Deep Space Industries announced plans for the world's first fleet of commercial asteroid-prospecting spacecraft

Jonathan Alcorn / Reuters

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Asteroids aren't just for dodging anymore. Less than a year after a company called Planetary Resources announced plans to survey, then mine, asteroids, a second company has set out its plans to turn orbiting piles of cosmic rubble into rocket fuel, solar panels, and trusses for spacecraft hundreds to thousands of miles above Earth.

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Suddenly asteroid mining has the potential of becoming a competitive field.

The ultimate goal is to make space exploration and development more affordable by obtaining fuel and construction material from easy-to-reach sources that flit past Earth all the time, rather than the costlier method of hauling everything up from Earth.

As a start, representatives of Deep Space Industries (DSI) on Tuesday outlined the company's plans to launch small prospector missions to asteroids beginning in 2015. A year later, the firm plans to launch its first sample-return mission, which aims to bring back samples of an asteroid not by the cupful, but in 60- to 150-pound quantities.

Such amounts not only would present a bonanza for the research community. They also would provide pristine test material for mining, refining, and manufacturing techniques the company is developing for use in space.

To company chairman Rick Tumlinson, DSI's ultimate goals represent a logical next step beyond government-sponsored exploration programs. He drew an analogy between NASA's human-spaceflight program and the Lewis and Clark Expedition under Thomas Jefferson, which was followed by a westward flow of settlers.

"We are the settlers and shopkeepers" heading into this latest frontier, he added.

Over the past 32 years, astronomers have discovered about 9,000 near-Earth asteroids, largely with the goal of assessing the risk of a collision with Earth. But among those 9,000, about 1,700 require only about as much energy to reach as a trip to the moon – an alluring prospect for cosmic prospectors interested in exploiting the asteroids' resource potential.

For all the various elements asteroids may provide – from platinum to iron and silicon – perhaps the most immediately valuable resource they carry is water ice, which can be used to make rocket fuel.

Therein lies the early money, according to officials with DSI and with Planetary Resources.

One early market, DSI officials say, could well be communications satellites. These run out of fuel long before their hardware fails. Although in principle these satellites could be refueled, sending that fuel from Earth is prohibitively expensive. So, before their tanks run dry, they must be sent to graveyard orbits where they won't collide with other satellites and become space junk. Fuel manufactured in space from water ice liberated from asteroids, however, could extend the operating life of a satellite.

Each month of additional service is worth another $5 million to $8 million to a communications-satellite operator, notes David Gump, DSI's chief executive officer.

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