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The future is bright for those of you who want to be asteroid miners! You might soon get your chance!

Hosted by: Hank Green
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Relevant Images:
Prospector-1 infographic (Credit: Deep Space Industries):
Asteroids (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech):
Lockheed Martin deep space habitat concept (Credit: Lockheed Martin):
Sierra Nevada concept (Credit: Sierra Nevada Corp.):
Mars (Credit: NASA):
[SciShow intro plays]

Hank: It’s been an exciting couple of weeks for the future of deep-space travel. For one thing, if you’ve ever wanted to be an asteroid miner, you might soon get your chance! Deep Space Industries, an asteroid mining company from California, just announced their plans for the first-ever commercial deep-space mining mission. The mission, called Prospector-1, will travel to a near-Earth asteroid to check out its potential resources as early as 2019.

Asteroids are full of useful materials metals like platinum and water, which can be used as fuel for spacecraft. Since the beginning of the space age, we’ve been spending millions of dollars to launch heavy fuel and supplies into orbit. Sending only a kilogram into orbit can cost as much as $25,000! Deep Space Industries and other asteroid mining companies are working toward a world where, instead of launching everything from the ground, ships can just stock up at mining stations already orbiting Earth.

While we’ve visited asteroids before, Prospector-1 will be the first commercial mission to check out an asteroid specifically for its resources. Although they haven’t announced a target yet, the asteroid will probably have to contain enough water ice to make it worth the trip. It’ll also have to be close enough to the sun and Earth that the craft’s solar panels and communications systems will work well.

Once it gets there, Prospector-1 will use visual and infrared scanning to search both on and below the asteroid’s surface for water and other materials. When it’s done with mapping, the craft will land on the asteroid to continue studying its geology.

We can use radar to study asteroids from Earth, but even asteroids in the same class can still be very different. So Prospector-1 is going to get a first-hand look. The craft is small — only about 50 kilograms — and uses Deep Space Industries’ Comet propulsion system to move around. With the Comet system, Prospector-1 fires jets of superheated water vapor to generate thrust. Since it uses water as fuel, the hope is that in the future, Prospector spacecraft could mine their own water to power their journey.

Although this is only a prospecting mission — hence the name — the company plans to already be mining resources in the 2020s. Depending on its final destination, Prospector-1 could launch any time between 2019 and 2022. Meanwhile, a test mission, called Prospector-X, will launch in 2017 to try out some of the mission’s technology in low-Earth orbit. With resources orbiting around the sun on millions of asteroids, asteroid mining could make exploring the solar system that much easier — and, let’s be honest, that much cooler.

Meanwhile, NASA is moving forward with its plans to send humans to Mars — no mining required. And last week, the space agency announced that they’ve selected six companies to design prototype deep space habitats, spaces where astronauts traveling to Mars will live and work on their journey.

Missions to the moon took only a few days, so crews could live in the smaller Apollo modules. But it takes 6-8 months to reach Mars. Astronauts will blast off in the Orion capsule, which is currently under development, but Orion is too small to give the crews the space or supplies they need for traveling months or years at a time.

Ideally, a deep space habitat would attach to Orion through an airlock or a tunnel and would provide plenty of space to eat, sleep, and move around after launch. The six companies, Bigelow Aerospace, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, NanoRocks, Orbital ATK, and the Sierra Nevada Corporation, will spend the next two years designing habitat prototypes and conducting concept studies. The companies will share a total of $65 million from NASA’s Next-STEP program, and they might get more funding as the projects develop.

Each company will create their own version of a deep space habitat based on technology they’re already developing. Sierra Nevada, for example, will base their prototype on their Dream Chaser cargo module, and will add life support systems, a propulsion module, and an inflatable room for some extra space. Meanwhile, Bigelow Aerospace will create an inflatable habitat based on an earlier prototype, called BEAM.

Last June, the company actually had the chance to test BEAM by attaching it to the International Space Station. While the final habitat might not be exactly like any of the prototypes, these studies will give NASA engineers valuable information about the kinds of systems and features deep-space habitats need to have. Each habitat is also set up a slightly different way, so creating multiple prototypes will help researchers figure out the best design for the final version.

After the two years are over, NASA will get started on the final habitat and the systems it’ll need, like propulsion modules and airlocks. So there’s a lot of work left to be done before we send humans too far out into space. But with Prospector-1 and these new deep-space habitats, we’re starting to get a little closer.

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