We are at the beginning of the steep part of the curve of asteroid mining technological development. What that means is current research is centered around prospecting, detection, transportation and navigational development. Initially national efforts will predominate, but commercial companies will increasingly follow. In the next decade you'll start to see people experimenting with the concept of robotic zero g mineral extraction. Eventually things will start to be pulled together and the technological winners of each stage will form a whole picture, and in this 20-30 year period, nations will arrange for shared telecommunications and navigation networks between earth and the main belt.
Image Credit: Bradford Space
Though not strictly a commercial effort, frequently university financed and inspired progress can play a big role in technological and then commercial development. The Colorado School of Mines is proud to host the world's first space resources coursework. The program boasts a long history in participation in space resource research, established facilities in which such work is done, as well as the design of In-Situ Resource Utilization systems. The university offers Post-Baccalaureate Certificate, Master of Science or Ph.D. degrees, including fully online coursework. No doubt the first space miners will come from the Colorado School of Mines!
Image Credit: Colorado School of Mines
This company started out with the view of opening access to space resources by making spacecraft technology cheap and affordable. In it's quest to achieve this DSI developed two systems: the Xplorer
. DSI describes the Xplorer as "Xplorer is designed to do something no spacecraft has done to date: use its own propulsion system to go from low Earth orbit to an Earth departure trajectory. We designed this spacecraft to take advantage of the relatively low cost and high availability of commercial rideshare launches to low Earth orbit. With this capability, we enable many exploration and high delta-V applications from geosynchronous orbit, to near-Earth asteroids, to destinations as far away as Mars." Also the Comet as "A simple, launch-safe, and cost-effective electrothermal propulsion system that uses water as a propellant and offers the ideal balance of cost and performance."
Recently DSI has been acquired by Bradford Space.
Image Credit: Deep Space Industries / Bradford Space
"Deep Space Systems Incorporated is a space systems engineering company located in Littleton, Colorado that supports the design, development, integration, testing, and operations of science, technology, and exploration spacecraft." Deep Space Systems is an established player in the space technology sector, having supported NASA systems: "Deep Space Systems is AS9100D certified. We are under contract to deliver Criticality 1S hardware and Criticality 3 flight hardware in support of NASA missions and Class D hardware in support of classified missions." The company boasts an extensive list of services to the space sector including: mission and system analysis, assembly and testing, engineering services, engineering visualization, guidance/navigation/control support, life support/crew systems, mechanical engineering, mission formulation, payload and vehicle integration, program management, propulsion, safety and quality assurance, subsystem integration, systems engineering, telecommunications and mission operations. They have begun their own production line and offer high performance camera systems as well as NASA's land rover CLPS.
Image Credit: Deep Space Systems
"We develop mining technologies and robotics for the resource sector." Sure, you can fly to an asteroid, scan it, send information about it back to earth, but at some point if you intend to profit you’ll be faced with one of the oldest and grandest professions in the world: mining! Deltion Innovations focuses on the dirty job of digging up that mineral wealth and extracting it, and what better thing for that hard job than robots? Deltion boasts a variety of services in this area including mechanical design, fabrication, electrical design, control systems and automation, extreme environment testing and training. They are also multiple award winners for the NASA Group Achievement Award. Research like this will be vital to asteroid mining.
Image Credit: Deltion
“Launching Low Earth Orbit (LEO) Satellites in 2019 that will locate radio transmissions from devices such as VHF walkie talkies.” Communications and telemetry will be vital in the maintenance and efficiency of an asteroid mining operation. Kleos Space sees opportunity in this sector and specializes in technological development of space and satellite based communications. Though not specifically stated to be designed for asteroid mining, developments in this area will be critical for it. In mid 2019 a low earth orbit nano-sat test mission will be launched. This European (UK/Luxembourg) based space company hopes to achieve near real time speeds of communication, and to develop a satellite network system which can be contracted out by companies and nations for high accuracy geolocation needs and other intelligence. An interesting template for commercial based space cooperation and the coordination of networks of satellites. Finally Kleos has an interest in space manufacturing with materials such as carbon fiber, resin and 3d printing. Though they do not seem to have much publicly stated in terms of progress here, this will be a major topic in asteroid mining development in the near future.
Image Credit: Kleos
"Seattle-based LeoStella is a state-of-the-art small satellite manufacturing company, redefining how high quality Earth observation constellations are built at scale." LeoStella is a part of a growing number of companies interested in scaling down the costs and size of your average satellite and using them in constellation form. Technological development such as this can help economize the hardware of space mining and open new approaches.
Image Credit: LeoStella
“Our mission is to redefine possible by returning to the Moon and unlocking its mysteries and resources for the benefit of humanity.” Moon Express is another company which sees a need and tremendous potential in unlocking the resources of the moon with the democratization of space mining. It plans on doing thus via their own line of MX class satellites that will be involved with prospecting and harvesting in a trio of already planned missions. The first utilizing their MX-1E system is its Lunar Scout mission, which will deliver an unspecified payload and ostensibly be a survey mission. The second Lunar Outpost expedition will be focused on surveying the southern lunar pole with a view of creating a base of operations here due to the maximal sunlight exposure. The third planned Harvest Moon expedition is the principal target of these missions: to retrieve lunar material for transport back to earth. Moon express is also proud to proclaim the world’s first officially recognized commercial operation on the moon as ordained by the SPACE Act and the United States government. Any progress made by the ambitious Moon Express project will be a boon to space mining in general.
Image Credit: Moon Express
"The team at NEORA has developed a process that allows for high-level analysis of NEOs, even within days of first being discovered. Our innovative techniques will enable us to use this data to provide evidence and records of targets with a high probability for successful missions." The Near Earth Object Resource Atlas seeks to be the world leader in the scanning and identification of asteroids, which is unquestionably a useful niche to fill in space mining. Technological development in this area will be the basis for future asteroid identification processes, and by focusing on near earth objects, NEORA puts itself in a pole position for the first asteroids to be collected. Those who start earliest reap the greatest rewards! A lot of interesting asteroid mining activity coming out of Australia.
Image Credit: NEORA
"We are developing a new generation of universal industrial robots to do the heavy lifting on Earth, Moon, asteroids and Mars." OffWorld sees the coming Alderamin boom that asteroid mining is, and has wisely inserted itself in the much needed area of robotic mining processing. The people that are first to develop these approaches will know unlimited success as every operation in the world comes to them for this kind of rarefied know-how. According to OffWorld, their master plan is stated as: "We envision millions of smart robots working under human supervision on and offworld, turning the inner solar system into a better, gentler, greener place for life and civilization." Ambitious visions of a group just getting started, we hope to see more from OffWorld soon!
Image Credit: OffWorld
An early hopeful player in the field, Planetary Resources eventually ran out of resources in 2018. The company was especially focused on targeting near earth asteroids and had a series of planned experimental satellite missions: Arkyd-3R, Arkyd-6 and Arkyd-301. Arkyd-3R was ejected out of the NanoRacks CubeSat Deployer on the International Space Station and was meant to 'validate spacecraft technology.' The Arkyd-6 satellite mission was launched via rocket in January 2018 with "...mid-wave infrared sensor, second-generation avionics, power systems, communications, and attitude determination and control systems." Finally, the Arkyd-301 mission was a planned scan of near earth asteroids for water content using their latest construct. Anticipating the need for economy and scale, Planetary Resources dabbled with 3d printing and an asteroid survey satellite constellation called Ceres.
Image Credit: Planetary Resources
The Planetoid Mines Company based in New Mexico has not made many public announcements since its foundation, however its web page boasts the following products and services: prospector rover and mining infrastructure, excavation and extraction equipment, in-situ resource utilization instruments, solar redux-molten regolith electrolysis, entry and decent landing platform, free space optical communications network, magnetoplasmadynamic propulsion. The company appears to be planning missions which skip further into the solar system, potentially building infrastructure along the way to bolster further missions: moon, mars, Europa, Davida.
Image Credit: Planetoid Mines Company
"Our ultimate goal is to build a family of robotic mining and manufacturing satellites that can make, form, weld, and assemble metal parts into larger structures. We are working to reduce the cost of manufacturing in space to the point where it will be less expensive to manufacture in space than to manufacture on Earth. This will enable the construction of large objects in space that are currently too costly to implement. We are using the latest advances in robotics, electric propulsion, and 3D printing technologies to provide an Internet based service which would allow everyone the ability to manufacture objects in space." SpaceFab.US knows exactly what will be required to springboard space development into the next stages that really push the boundaries. Fabrication technology and satellites will be the core of asteroid mining operations, so anything these technologists discover and design will be directly applicable to the field. Currently SpaceFab.US operates a space telescope called Waypoint I, capable of a variety of spectral analysis, that can be publicly accessed by app!
Image Credit: SpaceFab.US
"At Space Resources Australia our mission is to provide key space-derived resources to the emerging Space Industry. We aim to:
- Promote innovation and technologies required for space activities, particularly areas considered a competitive advantage for Australia
- Engage in international collaborations, strategic partnerships and education systems in order to share resources, access asteroid data, and better understand past expeditions
- Identify domestic and international partnerships to align ourselves with and support the Australian Space Industry
- Promote all space related activities via research, experiments and education
- Provide first mover advantage for the Australian Space Industry through exploration and discovery”
Not to be left out of the space mining boom, Australia is making sure it has a firm footing in the industry, and organizations like SRA are just the way to foster that growth industry.
Image Credit: Space Resources Australia
A new start up with a specific goal in mind, TransAstra knows well the potential of the coming asteroid mining mineral rush: "TransAstra is a new kind of aerospace company dedicated to building the “transcontinental railroad of space”. Our vision is for humanity to become a spacefaring species homesteading the solar system. Our mission is to turn thousands of asteroids in refueling stations for NASA and commercial spacecraft opening the high frontier to NASA human exploration and commercial industries beyond imaging satellites and telecommunications. TransAstra will lead the work in supplying services for the 21st century industries of asteroid mining, space solar power, space tourism and manufacturing in space." Other than this mission statement, this is all the information we have on TransAstra, though we hope to hear news from them soon!
Image Credit: TransAstra