A company called Deep Space Industries (DSI) will soon be launching spacecraft designed to locate nearby asteroids and harvest the raw materials within them. They have also created a 3D printer that will build metal parts from the asteroid material.
"This is the first commercial campaign to explore the small asteroids that pass by Earth," said Deep Space Chairman Rick Tumlinson. "Using low cost technologies and combining the legacy of our space program with the innovation of today's young high tech geniuses, we will do things that would have been impossible just a few years ago."
The spacecraft, called "Firefly" weigh about 70 lbs each and DSI intends to build a small fleet of them. The first group of Fireflies will be launched in 2015, going up into space on the backs of large communication satellites. Combining the Firefly launch with the launch of the communication satellites allows DSI to get a discounted rate. Once in orbit though, the Fireflies will take off on their own in search of asteroids to mine.
DSI expects the initial expedition to last up to four years and return between 60 and 150 lbs of raw materials. Once they have the materials in hand, they will begin building parts with them. In order to do that the engineers at DSI had to design a specialized 3D printer called the MicroGravity Foundry.
"The MicroGravity Foundry is the first 3D printer that creates high density, high strength metal components even in zero gravity," said Stephen Covey, a co-founder of DSI and inventor of the process. "Other metal 3D printers sinter powdered metal, which requires a gravity field and leaves a porous structure, or they use low melting point metals with less strength."
The DSI project is so exciting that even NASA wants in on it. They believe it may be possible to use the volatile compounds in the asteroids as rocket propellant. If the Firefly technology could be adapted it would allow NASA to treat the asteroids like space-age gas stations. Astronauts could mine the compounds and refuel mid-flight.