Deep-space ‘Firefly’ asteroid survey mission set for 2015 launch

An artist's concept of a wheel habitat under construction at an asteroid, a vision of space settlement by the asteroid-mining …
U.S. company Deep Space Industries (DSi) announced today that they will be launching their inaugural deep-space mission in 2015, sending a tiny robotic spacecraft called 'Firefly' on a six-month survey of a near-Earth asteroid.

The goal of this mission, and indeed the goal of the company, is to expand the resources available to humanity, by finding nearby asteroids that can be captured and harvested for valuable metals and materials, both to build and fuel spacecraft, but also for manufacturing back here on Earth.

The company plans on sending out a small fleet of their 25-kg Firefly spacecraft on these survey missions, to be followed by slightly larger craft they are calling 'Dragonfly', which will gather and return samples to Earth for testing. The first of the Dragonfly spacecraft is set to launch in 2016, once the first Firefly mission has identified a suitable target for it. Once a suitable large-scale target is found, that's when their 'Harvester' spacecraft will be deployed, to tow these asteroids back to Earth for easier extraction of their resources.

[ Related: Asteroid-prospecting space plan revealed ]

All of this survey, sample and retrieval work by DSi will be towards supplying materials for its breakthrough technology, the 'MicroGravity Foundry' (MGF).

"The MicroGravity Foundry is the first 3D printer that creates high-density high-strength metal components even in zero gravity" said Stephen Covey, the co-founder of DSi who invented the MGF process.

The MGF could turn the raw materials from the asteroids into the components for space habitats, machinery and even more mining robots.

The company also hopes to use water and gases such as methane, which would be frozen on the surfaces of these asteroids, to produce fuel for spacecraft and orbiting satellites. Although this fuel would be fairly expensive (between $5 million and $8 million per month's supply) that can be a cost-effective alternative to launching a brand new satellite into orbit simply because the perfectly-good previous satellite couldn't carry enough fuel to continue its mission.

The details of these missions won't be kept behind closed-doors either.

"The public will participate in FireFly and DragonFly missions via live feeds from Mission Control, online courses in asteroid mining sponsored by corporate marketers, and other innovative ways to open the doors wide," said David Gump, CEO of DSi.

DSi's plans are certainly ambitious, but they're definitely not unrealistic, given that they can all be accomplished with current technologies. Also, mining in space has other benefits as well, as there are abundant resources to be found, with very little cost to the environment.

"Turning asteroids into propellant and building materials damages no ecospheres since they are lifeless rocks left over from the formation of the solar system. Several hundred thousand that cross near Earth are available" said Mark Sonter, who is on the DSi Board of Directors.

[ Related: Incredible NASA collage shows the Sun at different wavelengths ]

All of this, really, is pointing towards the future, though. It's been said by some of our leading scientists (Stephen Hawking comes to mind) that for humanity to survive, we must push out into space. DSi's mission will be a valuable step towards making that vision a reality.

"We will only be visitors in space until we learn how to live off the land there" said Rick Tumlinson, DSi Chairman. "This is the Deep Space mission — to find, harvest and process the resources of space to help save our civilization and support the expansion of humanity beyond the Earth."

(Image courtesy DSi)

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