Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources are chipping away at an audacious goal one piece of business at a time
Before the decade is out, Deep Space Industries plans to send its first prospecting mission into the solar system to identify promising asteroids to mine. That does not mean, however, that anyone will soon profit from the water, precious metals or rare Earth elements stored in the small rocky bodies.
Once companies like DSI and its rival Planetary Resources identify viable sites for mining, they plan to send robotic spacecraft to demonstrate that autonomous systems can extract a little bit of water.
“We don’t go from standstill to an entirely established industry at monstrous scale mining asteroids,” said Chris Lewicki, president and chief executive of Redmond, Washington-based Planetary Resources. “It happens a little at a time.”
Recognizing that, DSI and Planetary Resources are building asteroid mining businesses through an incremental approach that is helping the firms attract partners and investors. Both companies are developing the technologies they will need for future asteroid mining missions while selling products and services based on those technologies to generate near-term revenues.
“How do you put this business together in a way that you don’t need to go out and ask investors for a billion dollars?” asked Daniel Faber, chief executive of Mountain View, California-based DSI. “You bootstrap it.”
DSI is focusing on small satellite technologies. “There is a market for high-reliability, high-performance small spacecraft, which is exactly what we will need when we are out at the asteroids,” Faber said.
DSI announced plans Aug. 9 to send its Prospector-1 mission to rendezvous with a near Earth asteroid before 2020. In 2017, DSI in partnership with the Luxembourg government plans to send a precursor mission, Prospector-X, into low Earth orbit. Prospector-X is designed to test key technologies DSI is developing, including electrothermal thrusters powered by water, avionics designed to withstand intense radiation and an optical navigation system that uses two cameras to enable spacecraft to operate in close proximity to asteroids or other targets.
HawkEye 360, a U.S. startup planning to launch a constellation of radio-frequency-monitoring satellites, announced plans in May to buy DSI’s Comet-1 water-propelled thrusters for its satellites built by the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies Space Flight Laboratory.
“By selling Comet water propulsion systems, DSI both generates revenue from commercial sales while promoting the use of water,” said Grant Bonin, DSI chief engineer. “This creates an ecosystem of missions and products today that can be supplied by space resources tomorrow, which is central to the company’s vision and strategy.”
Planetary Resources is taking a slightly different tack. The firm is working to reduce the cost of small satellites like Arkyd 3 Reflight, a four-kilogram satellite launched in July 2015 from the International Space Station to replace the one lost in a 2014 Antares rocket failure. At the same time, Planetary Resources is developing infrared and hyperspectral sensors to reveal the composition of asteroids and serve data-hungry agriculture markets.
Planetary Resources plans to launch a constellation of 10 Ceres satellites in low Earth orbit to provide data to agriculture, energy and mining industries. In May, Bayer AG, the German chemical and pharmaceutical company, announced plans to purchase data from Planetary Resources’ Ceres Earth observation constellation to develop products and services to help farmers time planting and irrigation in addition to identifying areas of their fields that need emergency attention.
“While going to an asteroid, characterizing its resources, extracting and selling those resources is a longer term goal, the technology we have to develop in order to do that gives us access to business opportunities along the way,” said Lewicki. “That ultimately is how we can pursue a very long-term audacious goal.”
Investors laud that strategy. Planetary Resources announced in May that it raised $21.1 million in Series A funding for its Ceres Earth observing business.
“It’s rare that a company is able to demonstrate the link between short-term profits and how they get to their long term vision,” said Valery Komissarova, business development director for Grishin Robotics, a venture capital firm and Planetary Resources investor based in Menlo Park, California. “Usually there is a gap. Either they have a grand vision and need hundreds of millions of dollars to realize it in 10 years or they can generate money in the short term but have little idea of how to become a multibillion dollar company.”
Komissarova compares Planetary Resources and its highly skilled team to SpaceX, whose founder Elon Musk also had a grand vision. “SpaceX is not earning money moving humans to Mars, but they are earning money today,” she said.
Dylan Taylor, a space industry angel investor and SpaceNews contributor, said he backs companies when he has confidence in the team and he believes in the Planetary Resources team. “Invariably, something unexpected happens and the team has to navigate through capital, technology and market challenges,” he said. “Without a team able to do that the chance of success is a bit lower.”
Still, Taylor is convinced someone will reap the rewards of mining asteroids. “It’s a bold idea, difficult, audacious, but I have no doubt everything that Planetary Resources seeks to do will happen,” he said. “It’s just a matter of when and who.”
Both Planetary Resources and DSI also are obtaining funding through NASA’s Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) program. Planetary Resources won grants to develop a compact, lightweight hyperspectral imager for microsatellites, which weigh between 10 and 100 kilograms. The company also won NASA SBIR funds to develop an additively manufactured propulsion system for small satellites and cubesats that is integrated with the spacecraft’s primary bus and designed to accommodate hybrid green monopropellant or cold-gas propellant.
DSI, meanwhile, is working with the University of Central Florida under NASA SBIR grants to produce five tons of asteroid simulants designed to mimic the chemical, mineralogical and volatile properties of carbonaceous chondrite asteroids. NASA can use the fake asteroids to test technology and procedures for upcoming asteroid exploration initiatives, including OSIRIS-REx, an asteroid sample return mission scheduled to launch in September, and the Asteroid Redirect Mission, a mission to send a robotic spacecraft to an asteroid to lift a large boulder and move it into lunar orbit, Faber said.
Through the SBIR grants, NASA is helping companies cover the cost of technologies with no immediate commercial applications. To jumpstart this market, though, NASA or some other organization should do even more, said Andrew Dempster, Director of the Australian Center for Space Engineering Research at the University of New South Wales. “I’ve proposed that someone like NASA contract with a company to deliver a ton of water in space,” he said.
The problem, as Dempster sees it, is that the market for resources mined in space does not yet exist. That market will develop because it costs $20,000 per kilogram to send anything into deep space. But until there are hotels, manufacturing plants, settlements or refueling stations in orbit to create demand for the products, it will be impossible to profit directly from asteroid mining, he said.