Virginia-based Deep Space Industries just announced bold plans to not only mine asteroids (which has been proposed by multiple companies), but to also turn the raw materials into complex metal parts using space-based 3D printers. The firm intends for their fleet of asteroid-prospecting spacecraft — which are set to be deployed in 2016 — to develop these orbiting resources for larger space exploration programs.

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Deep Space Industries will utilize low-cost cubesat  “FireFly” spacecraft which will get discounted delivery into space by piggy-backing on the launch of larger communications satellites. The first Fireflies will launch in 2016 with the expeditions taking two to four years. They will then return, depending on the target, with 60 to 150 lbs of raw materials.

However it is the implementation of 3D printing technology that really sets Deep Space Industries apart. The company has a patent-pending technology called the MicroGravity Foundry which will transform raw asteroid material into complex metal parts. The MicroGravity Foundry is a 3D printer that uses lasers to draw patterns in a nickel-charged gas medium, causing the nickel to be deposited in precise patterns.

In a statement, Deep Space Chairman Rick Tumlinson said: “This is the first commercial campaign to explore the small asteroids that pass by Earth. Using low cost technologies, and combining the legacy of our space program with the innovation of today’s young high tech geniuses, we will do things that would have been impossible just a few years ago.”

“My smartphone has more computing power than they had on the Apollo moon missions,” added Tumlinson. “We can make amazing machines smaller, cheaper, and faster than ever before. Imagine a production line of FireFlies, cocked and loaded and ready to fly out to examine any object that gets near the Earth.”

NASA have shown interest in DSI’s technologies as they believe that future Mars expeditions would benefit from the creation of asteroid-derived propellant. Missions would require fewer launches if the fuel to reach Mars were added in space from the volatiles in asteroids. Any Mars-bound missions would also be safer with a MicroGravity Foundry on board to print replacements for broken parts, or to create brand new parts invented after the expedition was on its way to the Red Planet.

+ Deep Space Industries

via New Scientist