Laptop-sized spacecraft are slated to blast off for nearby asteroids in 2015, paving the way for larger ships to mine the space rocks for metals and fuels, under plans unveiled Tuesday by a U.S. firm.

Deep Space Industries intends to launch three 25-kilogram FireFly spacecraft – described by the company as slightly bigger than a laptop — on two- to six-month one-way prospecting trips as part of a long-term vision to harvest resources from asteroids.

Those resources could refuel satellites and spacecraft en route to Mars or be used to build orbiting space platforms to deliver power and high speed internet anywhere on Earth, the company said at a news conference at the Santa Monica Museum of Flying in California.

 CEO David Gump said the company plans to next launch:

  • Larger "DragonFly" spacecraft in 2016 to take samples of up to 45 kilograms from the asteroids.
  • "Harvester" spacecraft, that will gather a few hundred tonnes of metals, gases and gravel from the asteroids that the firm intends to process and sell.

"It's potentially extremely valuable material," said Mark Sonter, an independent scientific consultant in the Australian mining and metallurgical industries who sits on Deep Space Industries' board of directors.

Harvesting materials in space for use in space will be far cheaper than launching it into space from Earth, the company argues.

Tiny asteroids targeted

The FireFlies will initially target very tiny asteroids, less than 10 metres in diameter, which some scientists speculate are solid rather than covered in gravel as bigger asteroids are, Gump said. 

However, the exact nature of such asteroids won't be known until the FireFlies' images and scientific data get beamed back to the company.

Based on studies of other asteroids and meteorites, Sonter said the company's target asteroids are likely to yield:

  • Water and gases that can be sold as fuel to refuel satellites and spacecraft bound for Mars.
  • Nickel-iron metal that can be processed into building materials. Those could be used to build future space technologies such as communications platforms to beam high-speed internet anywhere on Earth.
  • Silicon for space-based solar arrays that could beam power back to Earth.

3D printing in space

In the longer term, the company hopes to process asteroid ores and manufacture devices in space using a 3D printing technology it has patented. The technology, called MicroGravity Foundry, can create high-strength metal components in zero gravity, the company says.

Stephen Covey, another member of the company's board, said Deep Space believes that manufacturing in space is the "first step" toward large platforms and settlements in space.

Gump has been involved in other commercial space ventures as a co-founder of Transformation Space Corporation, which was contracted with NASA to help develop spacecraft to deliver cargo and crew to the International Space Station and a co-founder of Astrobotic Technology Inc., a Pittsburgh-based company that develops robotics technology for space.

Last April, another U.S. company, Seattle, Wash.-based Planetary Resources, announced it plans to be extracting gold and platinum from asteroids within 10 years. That venture is backed by Google CEO Larry Page and executive chairman Eric Schmidt, and James Cameron, director of the movie blockbusters Titanic and Avatar.

Chris Lewicki, president of Planetary Resources, acknowledged that companies like his still need to build the capability to be able to extract such resources. He said it is working hard to make "unbelievably expensive" space technologies cheaper.

"I think people have a right to be skeptical," he said Tuesday. "We're confident that we've got a good idea and we're pursuing it... We know that we're not the only ones who will see the opportunity. But this is an opportunity that is so large and the time for it will come eventually and we believe the time is right for it to come now."