Inside Ames: Asteroid mining could pave way for space colonies

Deep Space Industries is a startup with an ambitious, futuristic goal: locate asteroids, check them out and then send in mining spacecraft to extract their materials for use in orbit.

Deep Space Industries is a startup that wants to mine asteroids for materials. But not for use here on Earth. No, they have a more ambitious goal- use those materials to build cities up in space.

In the movie Armageddon, a team of drillers is sent to outer space to destroy an asteroid headed towards Earth. Asteroids are a popular theme in sci fi movies, often depicted as deadly space rocks threatening to destroy mankind.

But for this small group of scientists, they are a business opportunity. They want to find asteroids that aren’t too far from Earth’s, check them out and extract materials from them that can be used to build cities in space.

Daniel Faber
CEO, Deep Space Industries
We’re going to be mining material from asteroids and providing it in orbit for people to build infrastructure and very large constructions, frankly that they can make money off, enabling other people to build a vibrant economy and ultimately, have thousands of people in space

The company’s also hoping to find fuel, such as propellant for spacecraft.

Faber says that launching these raw materials on rockets from Earth is expensive, inefficient and infrequent. It’s one of the reasons why the idea of people living and working in space hasn’t been taken seriously. But making those materials available at an in orbit pit-stop could change that.

The mining expedition will begin with a small, robotic craft that will take samples and analyze the content of the rocks. Next, a larger craft will do the actual mining, hopefully returning with hundreds of tonnes of material to start building infrastructure in space.

We’ve done the math. We’ve done the plans, and our plans show that it’s 10 years out.

As more entrepreneurs eye making money in space, legal questions arise as to who owns stuff in space.

The United Nations Treaty on Outer Space from 1967 says that no country can own an asteroid or other celestial body, but it doesn’t say anything about companies or individuals.

The rules are evolving as people are realizing this is now a commercial endeavor// People do want to see this happen to a large extent and that’s created a very positive environment so we’ll see how it evolves in the next few years. We are active in the discussions.

But Deep Space Industries isn’t sitting around. It has already started to build the avionics and technology for the spacecraft that will collect the samples.

We have the core of those systems now coming together and in two years, we expect to be launching and going out and starting to touch and work with and get dirty.

So it’s pretty amazing that these plans could get off the ground in as little as two to three years. But who owns these asteroids and can they make money off of them? Figuring that out will be just as interesting as the technology itself.