NASA has awarded contracts to two private companies in order to explore the possibility of mining near-Earth asteroids.
The companies involved are Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources, two U.S. companies seeking to find an economically feasible way to mine asteroids for their minerals.
Planetary Resources will launch two test satellites, Arkyd 3 and Arkyd 6, which will be equipped with several mid-sized telescopes for identifying near-Earth asteroids for their economic potential. If a likely candidate is found, the company plans to conduct robotic mining operations.
Deep Space Industries will build several compact spacecraft called FireFlies for one-way missions to investigate asteroids for mining potential. The company also intends to build a spacecraft called Dragonfly, which would be capable of capturing asteroids for analysis and testing. Asteroid materials would be collected and transported to Earth by ‘Harvesters.’
Planetary Resources will use its Arkyd 100 low orbit telescope to analyze targeted asteroids, while the Arkyd 200 is capable of discovering asteroids between the moon and Earth. The company’s Arkyd 300 will have propulsion systems allowing it to search for asteroids beyond the moon.
As part of NASA’s Early Stage Innovations and Innovative Advanced Concepts directives, a number of studies have investigated the potential and feasibility of asteroid mining. The Robotic Asteroid Prospector Study found that Platinum Group Metals have the most promising potential for such mining operations. NASA also sponsors an annual competition in which students build and present robotic mining prototypes.
Not everyone is convinced that NASA is going in the right direction—particularly since mining operations here on Earth already have a hard time managing their costs, which run anywhere from $5,000 to $25,000 per kilogram, according to a report by Capital OTC. But the companies involved believe it is possible that harvesting resources from asteroids could be a better option.
The space agency and its corporate partners’ primary concern, however, is gathering resources for space exploration.