A US company plans to mine asteroids for metals, useful ores and minerals as they hurtle past the Earth using the first rock-prospecting spacecraft by 2015.

Deep Space Industries says it wants to start sending miniature scout probes, dubbed “Fireflies,” on one-way missions to near-Earth asteroids as soon as 2015.

Company CEO David Gump said larger probes, “Dragonflies”, which will bring back 50-to 100-pound samples from prospective targets could be on their way by 2016, CNN reported.

The goal is to extract metals, water and compounds that can be used to make spacecraft fuel from the chunks of rock that float within about 50 million kilometres of Earth.

Gump said the ability to produce fuel in space would be a boon for NASA, as the US space agency shifts its focus toward exploring deeper into the solar system.

As much as 90 per cent of the weight of a prospective months-long Mars mission could be fuel – and it costs between $5,000 and $10,000 per pound to put anything into space.

“If NASA can launch just the hardware and tank up in orbit, where the fuel is cheap, that means we could get to the Red Planet a lot sooner than we currently expect,” Gump said.

It could also allow commercial satellite companies to extend the life of hardware that’s now written off when fuel for manoeuvring thrusters runs out.

“If you give it one more month of active work in orbit, it’s worth about $5 (million) to $8 million to the owner of that satellite,” Gump said.

The announcement comes nine months after the unveiling of a similar project by Planetary Resources, a company backed by investors such as filmmaker James Cameron and Google executives Larry Page and Eric Schmidt.

The group says it hopes to get its first unmanned probes into space by the end of 2013.

Since the retirement of its space shuttles, NASA has outsourced supply missions to the International Space Station to the private rocket company SpaceX.

Deep Space Industries said it can build its first class of probes largely with off-the-shelf parts and book them on other launch vehicles, such as the French-built Ariane rockets or the Falcon boosters developed by SpaceX.

Its executives said the company is also developing a foundry designed to produce metal parts from nickel, an element abundant in asteroids, and operate in space, and a class of “Harvestor” craft to extract valuable material from the asteroids.

(This article was published on January 23, 2013)
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