And all at a cost of tens of millions — rather than hundreds of millions of dollars, says Daniel Faber, CEO of the Silicon Valley- and Luxembourg-based company.
“Water is an excellent source of fuel (especially as liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, or when combined with carbon dioxide to form methalox),” Faber told me. “However, water is also important for human habitation, for drinking-water and oxygen to breathe, and to use as radiation shielding or for growing crops.”
DSI notes that having a refueling “station” in Earth orbit would reduce the amount of fuel need for human trips to Mars. And it would also reduce the roughly $10,000 per pound price tag currently needed to send fuel into Earth orbit.
“We will not select the target body until much closer to launch, but based on the asteroids we are looking at currently, we expect travel time to be no more than 12 – 18 months ,” said Faber.
The most likely candidates are C-type asteroids — the most common out there — which have an easily-accessible and high abundance of water, says DSI. Whether it’s water in the form of ice, or water trapped in clay minerals or hydrated salts, the company says it can be mined by simply bagging up the space rock and letting it be heated by the Sun.
DSI says by the late 2020s, in situ space markets for water and asteroidal ore and minerals are expected to total over $1.5 billion.
“The Prospector-1 spacecraft will have an onboard star-tracker for precision pointing; a phased-array scanning antenna for deep space navigation and communications; and, a quad-pack of DSI’s CometTM line of water thrusters,” said Faber.
The craft will survey the asteroid for several weeks before ending the mission with an attempted touchdown on the target body itself using Prospector-1’s instrumented landing legs.
“Prospector-1 will autonomously map the surface and subsurface, taking visual and infrared imagery and mapping overall water content using its neutron spectrometer,” said Faber.
It would then use its water thrusters to gently touch down on the asteroid, determining the amount and location of the asteroid’s water as well as the surface’s “diggability.”
This will allow us to put together a detailed mining plan, says Faber.
How will this commercial mission differ from a regular science mission?
Faber says because the company is building the spacecraft with the most recent cutting-edge small satellite technology, DSI has been able to cut the cost and time of such missions by an order of magnitude. That is, when compared to government-funded deep space science missions.
“DSI’s CometTM line of water thrusters has significantly outpaced our sales estimates for this year and continue to gain traction in the market,” said Faber. “This allows the company to sell technologies today that can be refueled by asteroid resources tomorrow.”
What’s the biggest business risk?
“ The greatest market risks center around the infrastructure needed to make use of space resources ,” said Faber. “This is why DSI is actively developing technologies, such as water thrusters, that will utilize the resources the company delivers.”
Faber expects the company to begin mining operations within a decade, with asteroid resources being returned to low-Earth orbit (LEO) in order to be refined, used and ultimately sold to customers operating in LEO and beyond.