One company is building futuristic rockets that can use water mined from asteroids as a source of rocket fuel.
Companies like Deep Space Industries (DSI) are racing to enter the nascent field of asteroid mining, and the capability to refuel on asteroid water without returning to Earth could prove to be a game-changer for the industry. Water would be relatively easy to harvest from asteroids, so DSI plans to launch a small probe called Prospector-1 into space with an attached water rocket sometime next year.
“Our rockets basically take water, bring it up to a very high temperature, then expel it to produce thrust. It’s a flying steam kettle,” Grant Bonin, chief engineer of DSI, told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “This is fundamentally a much simpler and more robust system than other proposals to use water as rocket fuel, which require the hydrogen and oxygen generated to be refrigerated to be stored.”
DSI’s probe will rendezvous with a near-Earth asteroid in 2020 to assess its value for mineral mining. It will use a new water propulsion system that ejects super-heated water vapor to generate thrust. DSI intends to mine water from asteroids to provide future spacecraft with the ability to refuel in space.
“We intended to extract water from asteroids for use as propellant,” Bonin said. “We’ll send probes to asteroids and use the water mined from them to get back. In the longer term sense, we intended to return to Earth with a large quantity of water and carbon dioxide for sale. With those, you can create a lot of chemical combinations.”
DSI intends to sell air, building material, water and propellant to other companies in space at a cheaper price than launching them from Earth. DSI plans to follow up its survey with the first commercial space mining mission, which will likely mine water from the asteroids to fuel the return trip.
“It’s a struggle to launch resources from Earth into space,” Bonin continued. “You have to claw your way out of a deep gravity well. There’s major leverage in using space-based resources in space. Exploration has always made more sense if you live off the land rather than trying to bring everything with you. Space-based resources form an essential part of any significant expansion into space.”
Water ice is relatively common on asteroids throughout the solar system and has many potential uses for companies in space.
“Water is one of the most ubiquitous resources in the solar system,” Bonin told TheDCNF. “It can be split into oxygen, used as radiation shielding and now used to fuel rockets. Water is what will fuel our expansion into space. ”
Using water and other resources found in space is more economically efficient than lifting them up from Earth, which is far more energy intensive.
“You spend a lot of time, energy and money escaping Earth’s gravity, why would you want to go back?” Bonin joked. “We’ll be setting up the gas stations where people can refuel at when they move to cislunar space and beyond.”
DSI’s CEO previously told The DCNF its goal is to mine enough asteroids to provide “all the material and equipment needed to build cities in space” in the next 30 years.
“Our company was founded with a long term vision of using space resources,” Bonin stated.”Pretty much every technology we need to develop long term space exploration can be sold to the satellite development market.”
DSI and a recent wave of other private companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Bigelow Aerospace have been encouraged by a rapidly changing legal environment.
The U.S. Senate unanimously passed a bill in November, later signed by President Barack Obama, that legalized asteroid mining and granted property rights in space to private companies. Under the new law, companies own the resources they extract from asteroids, such as platinum and water. Experts at think tanks routinely noted the lack of legal recognition of property rights in space as one of the major road blocks to the development of space-based industries.
Previously, the international Outer Space Treaty declared that no nation could own property in space. The wording of the treaty is vague enough that companies want to ensure that they will own the resources they mine from asteroids before investing. The bill Congress passed would make those property rights official, at least under U.S. law.
Another private space company called Planetary Resources has already launched a simple test vehicle into low Earth orbit and also intends to mine asteroids.
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