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Asteroid mining: Second company announces plans. Time to stake a claim? (+video)

Deep Space Industries said Tuesday it plans to launch small prospector missions to asteroids beginning in 2015. The goal of asteroid mining is to make space exploration more affordable.

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Asteroids aren't just for dodging anymore. Less than a year after a company called Planetary Resources announced plans to survey, then mine, asteroids, a second company has set out its plans to turn orbiting piles of cosmic rubble into rocket fuel, solar panels, and trusses for spacecraft hundreds to thousands of miles above Earth.

Suddenly asteroid mining has the potential of becoming a competitive field.

The ultimate goal is to make space exploration and development more affordable by obtaining fuel and construction material from easy-to-reach sources that flit past Earth all the time, rather than the costlier method of hauling everything up from Earth.

As a start, representatives of Deep Space Industries (DSI) on Tuesday outlined the company's plans to launch small prospector missions to asteroids beginning in 2015. A year later, the firm plans to launch its first sample-return mission, which aims to bring back samples of an asteroid not by the cupful, but in 60- to 150-pound quantities.

Such amounts not only would present a bonanza for the research community. They also would provide pristine test material for mining, refining, and manufacturing techniques the company is developing for use in space.

To company chairman Rick Tumlinson, DSI's ultimate goals represent a logical next step beyond government-sponsored exploration programs. He drew an analogy between NASA's human-spaceflight program and the Lewis and Clark Expedition under Thomas Jefferson, which was followed by a westward flow of settlers.

"We are the settlers and shopkeepers" heading into this latest frontier, he added.

Over the past 32 years, astronomers have discovered about 9,000 near-Earth asteroids, largely with the goal of assessing the risk of a collision with Earth. But among those 9,000, about 1,700 require only about as much energy to reach as a trip to the moon – an alluring prospect for cosmic prospectors interested in exploiting the asteroids' resource potential.

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