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Space business: Are rocks the next big thing? Deep Space Industries thinks so

Deep Space Industries plans to explore, analyze, mine, and ultimately extract valuable resources from asteroids.
Deep Space Industries plans to explore, analyze, mine, and ultimately extract valuable resources from asteroids.
Bryan Versteeg

A brand new company called "Deep Space Industries" (DSI) revealed itself on Tuesday to a public that just can't get enough of orbital metallurgy and final frontier that, as we know from numerous James Cameron movies, will be all about taking mining out of earthbound shafts and sending it to the stars! 

The event was held at the Museum of Flying at the Santa Monica Airport and featured the executive and scientific team of DSI laying out the case for a future in which their company uses the abundant raw materials of "near Earth asteroids" (NEAs) to create everything from tools to solar panels to rocket fuel.

The presentation was entertainingly emceed by a long-lost friend of mine, Geoff Notkin, who some years ago moved to Arizona to commit full-time to meteorite hunting and has since starred in a realty TV show, "Meteorite Men," in the process becoming an authority on rocks that have fallen from outer space. 

The idea that space exploration can be transformed from something that the government does to something that the private sector undertakes has gained considerable momentum over the past year or so. A number of entrepreneurs have jumped in, with the biggest splash (Splashdown?) made by L.A.'s own Elon Musk and his Hawthorne-based startup, SpaceX. It's in the early stages of a $1.6 billion contract with NASA to launch resupply missions to the International Space Station.

DSI follows Seattle-based Planetary Resources into what both hope will be a robust asteroid-mining business over the coming decades. Planetary Resources is more high concept — and has, accordingly, a more high concept team of folks involved, including Peter Diamandis of X Prize fame, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt on the funding side, and the aforementioned Cameron, who does have some real credibility in the science world due to his deep sea exploration missions. 

DSI's model focuses on accessing the abundance of NEAs at low cost, with technology that either already exists or that's on the verge of breaking through (3D printing, for example, to fabricate tools and structures in space).

"One company is a fluke," said Chairman Rick Tumlinson on Tuesday, speaking of Planetary Resources debut last year. "Two is the beginning of an industry."

So what are the chances the asteroid mining really will become a reality in the future? And are companies that want to do it operating in the same ballpark as private space launch providers like SpaceX?

Let's answer the second question first.

Yes, they are in same ballpark — but for now primarily because the only way for DSI and others to get their inexpensive probes launched is by "hitching rides" with other missions. Those missions could be launched by SpaceX.

For the record, DSI's initial probes will be very cheap, and very small: a bit bigger than a laptop, if you can believe it; they'll be called "Fireflies" and expand on "cubesat" technology, which enables miniaturized spacecraft. Later spacecraft, called "Dragonflies," will be larger and designed to return samples to Earth.

Now the first question: reality or fantasy?

Well, there are skeptics. And SpaceX and DSI are in different places.

SpaceX — and Musk freely admits this — has a business right now because NASA doesn't have a Space Shuttle to resupply the ISS. Beyond SpaceX's $1.6 billion contract, which entails 12 missions, it's also expanding into launch services for the military.

DSI, however, is positioning itself to meet the needs of NASA and SpaceX — and whoever else heads for space in coming decades. "The frontier is coming, and our time is now," the company says in a promotional video. " So while an existing need enables SpaceX's business, the anticipation of business drives DSI's model.

In a nutshell, DSI wants to be a "gas station" and "building supply store" in space. Asteroids can have water on them, and the hyrdrogen and oxygen can be turned into fuel. The idea is that, for example, a mission to Mars could carry just enough fuel initially to get to low Earth orbit, then gas up with DSI and fly the rest of the way.

Advanced fabrication technologies would enable whole communications platforms, according to the company, to be built from asteroids, eliminating the need for communications satellites to be launched from Earth — a good thing, as DSI said that these platforms are straining the limits of the current generation of "heavy lift" rockets. 

So the success of DSI and other asteroid-mining companies depends on space exploration and tourism becoming real businesses in the future; it also depends on companies that need to place stuff in space — communications companies, for example — recognizing that building technology in orbit is a better deal than launching it from Earth.

There is a shorter-term business for DSI to capitalize on, related to becoming the Standard Oil of the private space business: refueling satellites that have run out of fuel and would otherwise be allowed to die. Asteroid-derived fuel could extend the life of these satellites, allowing the companies that operate them to bring in millions more in revenue from just an additional month of service, DSI argues.

It's tempting to see the business of space as akin to the expansion of the U.S. West in the 19th century, with the discovery and exploitation of natural resources attracting settlers.

DSI did say on Tuesday that it wants to open space to "settlers and shopkeepers." But of course, the actual process of doing what the likes of DSI and Planetary Resources propose is enormously complex. And even if DSI can do its thing at low cost, that's a relative concept. Mining asteroids is going to be vastly more expensive than creating iPhone apps.

That said, all this attention on asteroids could deliver something more important than business: finding the giant chunks of space rock that could collide with Earth, creating so much destruction that humanity itself could be at risk.

There are some things, in the end, that matter more than money.

Follow Matthew DeBord and the DeBord Report on Twitter. And ask Matt questions at Quora.