Asteroid-mining company Deep Space Industries has just announced plans to launch a fleet of "FireFly" spacecraft as soon as 2015. Their mission? Find asteroids, rich with valuable metals, that could aid in humanity's colonization of space.
"Using resources harvested in space is the only way to afford permanent space development," said Deep Space CEO David Gump in a statement. Gump continues:
More than 900 new asteroids that pass near Earth are discovered every year. They can be like the Iron Range of Minnesota was for the Detroit car industry last century - a key resource located near where it was needed. In this case, metals and fuel from asteroids can expand the in-space industries of this century. That is our strategy.
According to Deep Space, the FireFly will be the first in a diverse lineup of spacecraft designed to prospect for, harvest, and process water and rare earth metals from near-Earth asteroids. It's unclear whether the moniker "FireFly" is a direct nod to Whedon's space western or not, but the filename for the FireFly concept art provided by Deep Space reads "archimedes," not "firefly," so we're willing to speculate that someone in marketing had the bright idea to go and re-name it something a little more grabby at the last minute.
In any case, the FireFlies, specifically, will be made of economical "cubesat" components, weigh in at around 55 pounds each, and look something like this artist's concept:
The FireFly will act like a scout, seeking out promising space rock and paving the way for the company's 70-pound Dragonfly spacecraft, which will return asteroid samples to Earth on missions set to launch some time in 2016 and last between two and four years. In the concept art featured below, a Dragonfly samples from a prospective asteroid.
If all goes according to plan, Deep Space hopes to be harvesting water and metals within the decade, employing harvesting and fuel-processing spacecraft, like the ones conceptualized below, to do it. There's even a "settlement concept" spacecraft, pictured at the top of the post.
Can Deep Space actually pull this off? That remains to be seen. The company's business model closely resembles that of Planetary Resources — the only other major player in the brand new space-mining industry, which launched in April of last year backed by big-money investors like Google's Eric Schmidt and Larry Page — but appears to lack the early-stage financial support enjoyed by its competitor. One of the biggest goals of today's announcement was to attract the interest of potential investors.
One thing we especially like about Deep Space's business model is the room it affords for public involvement:
"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," explained Gump.
"The Google Lunar X Prize, Unilever and Red Bull each are spending tens of millions of dollars on space sponsorships, so the opportunity to sponsor a FireFly expedition into deep space will be enticing."