"One company may be a fluke," DSI co-founder Rick Tumlinson said at the press conference announcing the company. "Two companies showing up, that's the beginning of an industry."
DSI's founders have plenty of experience in launching space ventures, if not an unblemished track record of success. Tumlinson is a space entrepreneur and activist who brokered an early deal to send the first space tourist, Dennis Tito, for a visit to Russian space station Mir. (Tito ended up flying to the International Space Station instead.) He also co-founded the and a number of other space startups. DSI CEO David Gump was most recently president of top Google Lunar X PRIZE competitor Astrobotic. He has a number of entrepreneurial space firsts to his own credit, including the first TV commercial to be shot on the International Space Station (for RadioShack) and acting as head of the company (now-defunct t/Space) that got the ball rolling on NASA's plans for commercial resupply of the ISS.
Although Gump said in today's press conference that DSI already has investors onboard (without saying who), it seems clear that DSI lacks the deep pockets of Planetary Resources, with its billionaire angel investors. "One reason that we held the conference today," Gump tells PM, "was to go public so that potential corporate sponsors could find us." However, the company hopes to attract those investors with a plan that in some ways seems even more ambitious.
"If you look at what PRI has publicly said and what we've said," Gump says, "it's a Venn diagram with partial overlap. We're putting a great deal of emphasis on early sample return, and, additionally, we're putting a great deal of emphasis on getting the technologies ready to actually turn asteroids into something people want to buy."
Assuming the investments and customers come together, DSI plans to launch its first fleet of three asteroid prospecting craft, called Fireflies, in 2015. DSI head engineer Daniel Faber says these robotic probes will be about the size of a laptop and built with components already available for Cubesats—the small, standardized satellites being built by universities around the world. Using three spacecraft will give each mission triple redundancy, increasing the chances of a given mission succeeding even if a spacecraft or two fails en route to an asteroid. (Tumlinson declined to say how much DSI anticipates each spacecraft will cost to design, build, and fly.)
DSI intends to launch the first generation of spacecraft on close flybys of promising looking asteroids. That's in contrast to PRI, which will keep its first craft in Earth orbit for remote sensing of target asteroids. Gump says each Firefly will snap 50 to 100 photos on its approach, close encounter, and departure from an asteroid. By 2016 DSI hopes to fly its second-generation craft, called Dragonflies, on missions to actually scoop up asteroid material and return it to Earth for analysis and experimentation.
By then the company hopes to be well on its way toward perfecting a microgravity foundry invented by DSI's Stephen Covey. Covey said during the press conference that his patent-pending 3D-printing process could create high-quality parts out of nickel and do so in a low-gravity environment. "Until we file some additional international patents, we're not going to say much more about it," Gump says.
For its first customers, DSI is looking to NASA, which Gump says might want to pay for demonstration flights of the probes and—as the agency is doing with Google Lunar X PRIZE competitors—for data acquired during the construction and operation. At the same time, DSI is pursuing corporations who might want to enter into other sponsorship deals to put their logos on a spacecraft.
A bit further out, the company sees a market for refueling communications satellites that have run out of gas, using hydrogen and oxygen mined from asteroids. "We have been in discussions with one of the largest companies in the comsat industry interested in the future of getting propellant," Gump says. DSI figures comsat operators will pay $5 to $8 million per extra month of extended life of their satellites with asteroid-mined material because it could still cost less than using propellant, or new satellites blasted into orbit from Earth.
Asteroid prospecting flybys, sample return and collection missions, and the microgravity foundry could all add up to building large structures in space, such as habitats and solar-power satellites, as well as keeping space-based fuel depots topped off with resources mined from asteroids. But DSI will have to move fast to stay ahead of cash-rich Planetary Resources, which just released a of its manufacturing facilities and a prototype of the spacecraft it plans to launch by 2015. Game on.