It could be the plot of a science fiction movie. In fact, add in something about saving the Earth and it is: travel through space to rendezvous with an asteroid, land and starting drilling into it. But that's exactly what a small group of scientists at Deep Space Industries are trying to do.
From a nondescript office on the edge of the Ames Research Park in Silicon Valley, the company is plotting a futuristic scheme to locate asteroids, check them out and then send in mining spacecraft to strip them of their minerals. The goal: enable the even-more futuristic ambition of cities in space.
"The future that we see in 20 or 30 years, is that we want to be supplying people who are building in space. Cities with thousands of people living in them," said Daniel Faber, CEO of Deep Space Industries. "And to get to that stage, you need a massive amount of material."
Sending construction materials from Earth via spacecraft is inefficient, dangerous and most of all, it's expensive. It's one of the main reasons why space cities are not taken very seriously today, said Faber, but he believes they get much more realistic if rockets are used to carry just the complex equipment while the "dumb parts" are built in orbit.
He hopes to target the thousand or more asteroids that are in orbits around the sun that are much like Earth's orbit.
"It's easy to go out to them and get back again," he said.
Deep Space Industries plans to first send a small surveying spacecraft that will land on the asteroid, robotically take samples and analyze the mineral content of the rocks. The company hopes to find material that can be used for construction and turned into propellant and fuel. Then, a larger craft will come in to do the actual mining.
Those craft will be returning from asteroids with hundreds of tons of material -- enough to start building serious structures in space, said Faber.
"We've done the math. We've done the plans, and our plans show that it's 10 years out," he said.
Asteroid mining doesn't just open the door to space colonization, it could open the door to an out-of-this-world legal dispute.
The United Nations Treaty on Outer Space, from 1967 when space was firmly the domain of national agencies, says that no country can own an asteroid or other celestial body, but it doesn't say anything about companies or individuals.
The question is one of many now coming to light as the barrier to enter space becomes lower. Modern technology means lower costs, both for launch and engineering, and private companies are eyeing space at a scale that's never been seen before.
Faber himself thinks that within his lifetime, space travel will become routine.
So, is he crazy?
Perhaps not. At least one other company is pursuing the same idea. Planetary Resources in Redmond, Washington, is backed by Eric Schmidt and Larry Page of Google; Richard Branson, and former Microsoft engineer and space tourist Charles Simonyi. Its first spacecraft was just launched from the International Space Station to test avionics, control systems and software as part of the company's development work.
"It's a bit like 1980 with the PC," said Faber. "Nobody knows yet why everyone will want a PC, it seems like a crazy idea, but there's some people selling them out of their garage."
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