Deep Space Industries (DSI) today announced that it will conduct what it claims is the world's first commercial interplanetary mining mission. In conjunction with the government of Luxembourg, the Silicon Valley-based company is planning to launch an unmanned spacecraft called Prospector-1 to intercept, survey, and land on a near-Earth asteroid as a prelude to space mining operations.

According to DSI, Prospector-1 is meant to be a low-cost mission. Exactly how low cost won't be disclosed, but a company white paper (PDF) places it in the tens of millions of dollars. Weighing only 50 kg (110 lb) fully fueled, the spacecraft is designed to be launched as a secondary payload into low-earth orbit from where it will be sent into deep space by an integrated booster stage.

The purpose behind the mission is to demonstrate that private industry has the capability to mount an interplanetary mission with, in this case, the objective of rendezvousing with a near-Earth asteroid, mapping it, identifying commercially viable amounts of minerals with an emphasis on water and carbon dioxide, and effecting a landing to assess the asteroid's physical characteristics and "diggability." The results of these findings will be used to plan actual mining operations.

In keeping the budgetary considerations mission, Prospector-1 is a relatively simple, low-cost craft standing about 50 cm (20 in) tall, excluding its landing legs. Its hexagonal architecture holds solar panels, radiation-hardened avionics, tracking sensors, attitude control systems, image camera, neutron spectrometer, and instrumented landing legs housing a magnetometer and gravimeter.

Propulsion for Prospector-1 is DSI's proprietary Comet thrusters, which use water vapor superheated to 1,000° C (1,800° F) to produce about 200 seconds of specific impulse. According to the designers, using water as a propellant is not only cheap, but also greatly reduces the dangers of explosion or corrosion. In addition, using water will greatly simplify the problems of refueling in future missions.

DSI says that Prospector-1 will build on the results of its Prospector-X orbital technology demonstrator and HawkEye 360 constellation of Earth-orbit prospecting microsatellites, both of which will launch before Prospector-1. The Prospector-X mission is scheduled to launch in 2017, while a Prospector-1 launch is penciled in for sometime before the end of the decade. In the meantime, the Prospector platform is available for private and government customers looking to develop their own low-cost missions.

"During the next decade, we will begin the harvest of space resources from asteroids," says Daniel Faber, CEO of Deep Space Industries. "We are changing the paradigm of business operations in space, from one where our customers carry everything with them, to one in which the supplies they need are waiting for them when they get there."

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