Depending on how you look at it, outer space is a gold mine. Every year, thousands of asteroids and meteors loaded with valuable metals like gold, platinum, nickel and iron come whizzing by Earth. But Daniel Faber, CEO of the asteroid mining company Deep Space Industries, is less interested in space gold than he is in another resource found in abundance on these space rocks: water.
When Deep Space Industries was founded in 2012, the company's goal was to harvest the abundance of metallic resources existing in space which are only found in relatively small quantities on Earth. Unfortunately, it turned out investors weren't interested in throwing money at experimental space mines when there were established mines on Earth—and even if they were, the technology to make it happen didn't exist.
So when Faber came onboard as the CEO of Deep Space Industries in 2014, the company pivoted toward developing the technology needed to launch a space mining industry, rather than trying to jump right into mining asteroids. In other words, Deep Space Industries became an asteroid mining company without a mine.
Deep Space Industries' first order of business was to develop the technology needed to make space mining a reality, which it would then use to further its own asteroid mining ambitions while selling the technology to other mining companies. Its first product, a low-energy water powered thruster, was finished this June. Deep Space Industries has already sold three thrusters to other companies and will be deploying a fourth thruster on its Prospector-1 spacecraft, which will launch to Low Earth Orbit at the end of 2017 to test onboard technology.
"What we've done is create a thruster that uses just water natively," Faber told Motherboard during the International Astronautical Congress. "That way, we're building a technology uses the resources found on asteroids. People think they're buying a thruster, but they're actually getting addicted to water."
Deep Space Industries is banking on the fact that water is going to become one of the most valuable commodities in the future space economy. Not only will it be consumed by crewed space missions to Mars and the Moon, but it will also be needed in huge quantities to fuel the vehicles that will take the crews to their destination—either as liquid water (in the case of the Prospector-1), the source of methane and liquid oxygen (as per Musk's Mars plans), or the source of liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen (as per Lockheed's Mars Base Camp).
While it is theoretically possible to get water from Earth to power these vehicles, it is prohibitively expensive to do so—at the moment, it costs about $10,000 to launch a pound of cargo to Low Earth Orbit. The cost of hauling water from Earth to space means that if Deep Space can figure out how to harvest it effectively from asteroids, the value of water works out to about $25,000 per gallon. Although Deep Space Industries hopes to significantly lower the price on this orbital commodity, as Faber put it, "in space, water is more valuable than platinum."
In the long term, of course, Faber said Deep Space Industries plans to expand its mining operations to include metals as well.
"We'd love to be providing all the material and equipment to build cities in space," said Faber.
But before the company gets to that point, there's plenty of work to be done. Assuming the Prospector-1's test run in low earth orbit is successful in 2017, the next step would be to send it to an actual asteroid. Here the Prospector would be answering a number of questions crucial to developing a space mining industry, such as the material makeup of the asteroid and how hard it is to dig for these materials. Once these questions have been answered, Deep Space Industries can begin working on the technologies necessary to actually extract ore from an asteroid, something it hopes to accomplish by 2020.
In the meantime, a number of non-technical hurdles remain. For Faber and his colleagues, one of the most significant challenges to mining an asteroids remains convincing investors it's worth the effort. Yet thanks to a number of recent developments in the legal and commercial environments, this is starting to get easier.
One of the most significant impediments to asteroid mining as a field was the legal challenges. As stated in Article II of the UN Outer Space Treaty ratified in 1967, "outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation."
But this begs the question of whether it is subject to commercial appropriation. Asteroid mining companies like Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources have been banking on the fact that their activities are legal because they are not explicitly prohibited in the treaty.
In recent months this stance has been bolstered by Luxembourg and the United States, which both passed legislation allowing asteroid mining companies to legally own the materials they extract from space rocks. Although this is not the same as legalizing this on an international level at the UN, Faber is hoping that as more countries like the UAE and Mexico (which saw a Mexican company sign a memorandum of understanding with Deep Space Industries at this year's Astronautical Congress) come on board, the international community will follow suit.
"The governments have also come to the conclusion that the time is almost upon us [to begin asteroid mining]," Faber told Motherboard. "Space is not the purview of just one country. We really see this as an international endeavor."