A Tiny, Water-Powered Spacecraft Could Be the First to Mine Asteroids

By Maddie Stone on at

A few months back, Luxembourg—a tiny country better known for world-class pastries—announced its intention to become a leader in asteroid mining. Now, Luxembourg has revealed the first step in its plan to fill the banking vaults with space-grade platinum: a small, water-powered spacecraft.

In partnership with the California-based asteroid mining company Deep Space Industries (DSI), the Luxembourg Government and national banking institution have just unveiled Prospector-X, a robotic spacecraft that’ll test technologies for prospecting and mining near Earth asteroids. The test vehicle, which DSI is hoping to launch next year, will remain in low Earth orbit. But the long term plan is to send fleets of spacecraft to lucrative rocks, carve out the valuable bits, and bring them back to Earth.

A Tiny, Water-Powered Spacecraft Could Be the First to Mine Asteroids
Image: Deep Space Industries

Asteroid mining is an emerging industry that blends starry-eyed futurism with profit-driven capitalism. It’s true that some of the thousands of near Earth objects are chock full of rare metals including platinum, iridium, and palladium, and that anyone able to tap these outer space rocks could wind up controlling one of the most lucrative markets on Earth. But it’s also the case that if we ever want to permanently settle in outer space, we’re going to need to mine asteroids for raw materials.

“Deep Space Industries’ ultimate goal is to be building huge structures in space that could house thousands of people,” DSI CEO Daniel Faber told Gizmodo. “To do that we need to get to the point of extracting asteroids and making those resources available.”

First things first, we need to start prospecting asteroids, something that DSI and the asteroid mining company Planetary Resources are now in a race to do. Planetary Resources has spent the last few years designing and building a series of prospecting craft, including the Arkyd 3, which deployed into low Earth orbit from the International Space Station last year.

The Prospector-X appears to be DSI’s answer to the Arkyds—a demonstrator vehicle that’ll test a range of technologies needed to mine asteroids. These include an optical navigation system that tells the spacecraft precisely where it is in relation to a near Earth object, and an avionics core designed to survive intense blasts of cosmic radiation. The most interesting and novel piece of equipment is a small thruster that runs on nothing but water.

“If you throw water out the back of your vehicle quickly enough, you get thrust,” Faber said. “This is important because, once we’re out at asteroids, one of the things we’ll have in abundance is water. However, no thrusters can currently use water in its native form.”

All of the technologies featured on the Prospector-X are in some level of commercial development, and DSI plans to make a side business selling these systems to the burgeoning satellite market. The first resources DSI mines from asteroids will remain in space, furnishing other companies with a cheaper supply of fuel and spare parts.

It’s not too surprising that Luxembourg—a small but wealthy country with limited terrestrial resources—has decided to take a gamble on space mining. Luxembourg is already home to several vibrant satellite operators, and the national space programme has researched futuristic, deep space propulsion technologies like solar sails.

Of course, Luxembourg isn’t the only country interested in opening up the outer space commodities market. Last autumn, Obama signed the US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, making asteroid mining fully legal in the United States. Although no company can claim ownership over a near Earth object under international law, there is now a legal framework in place allowing American companies to keep any minerals they manage to extract in space.

A new gold rush is coming—except this time, only those with a high tech gadgets and wealthy financiers can even dream of participating.