Digging Space

Commentary by Mike Mackowski

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From the classic days of space science fiction to the projections of large scale operations in space from the 1960s and 70s, utilization of space resources has always been envisioned as a major part of large scale space operations. Now in the early 21st Century we finally have at least two serious companies formed whose goal is to mine asteroids.  Planetary Resources announced their plans in 2012 while this January we heard about Deep Space Industries. This is a very exciting prospect for any advocate of expanded human presence in space.

On the other hand, the odds for financial success for these companies seem to be very low. This is based on the poor track record of similar far-reaching space start-ups (Space Industries Inc, Conestoga, American Rocket Company, MirCorp, etc.) and the obstacles that they will need to overcome. These obstacles include engineering (use of cubesats to find, capture, process, and return resources is a lot to ask of a tiny satellite) and financial (start up costs, the market for resources, liability, etc.).

What is encouraging is that a key participant in Deep Space Industries is Astrobotic Technologies. They have an impressive resume of funded contracts focused on extra terrestrial resource utilization. They have been involved in the Google lunar X prize competition and have won some NASA study contracts and have actually built some hardware. They certainly know what they are doing technically, but they are also attempting to rely on sponsors and advertising revenue to turn a profit. This did not work for another lunar exploration company (Rocket City Space Pioneers, who had to sell out to Moon Express at least partially because their business model of re-selling space on their spacecraft or launch vehicle did not work out).

Astrobotic certainly is proposing ambitious missions. Their Polaris lunar polar explorer rover includes a drill, which makes the design even more challenging. Having been involved in some lunar mission studies, It is difficult enough to develop a basic unmanned lunar lander. Designing a polar lander with a lot of shadowing issues and then adding a drill makes it even more difficult. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but there are plenty of challenges. Doing even more ambitious activities in deep space with asteroids makes the hurdles even higher.

Their little Cubesat-based FireFly and Dragofnfly spacecraft may be well suited to deep space reconnaissance of asteroids, but retrieving materials back to Earth (orbit) will take significant delta V, which requires fuel (not to mention capture mechanisms and stabilization of spinning rocks). So I am a little skeptical that a tiny 70 lb DragonFly will be able to recover economically useful chunks (60 to 150 lb) of space raw material.

It would be great to see this become reality and it makes sense for them to start off in literally small chunks. But I worry that the potential for actually making money off of this is very small. So kudos to this group for taking risks but I will believe it when I see it. There have been a lot of start-ups with innovative ideas that promise game-changing products, but in the space business, delivering on that is seldom achieved.

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