U.S. companies are preparing to tap the solar system’s riches. But will they share the trillion-dollar deep-space market with hungry foreign competitors?
The tech firm Deep Space Industries (DSI) is headquartered on the second story of an aging office building at the edge of NASA’s Ames Research Center, not far from the town of Mountain View, California.
Established in 1939 as a laboratory for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, a predecessor to NASA, Ames is now part government research site, part industrial park, and part open-air museum — visitors pass rows of decommissioned rockets and the hulking skeleton of Hangar One, where the Navy once parked its experimental blimps in the 1930s. Shimmering nearby in the Pacific coast sun lies the sprawling aerospace facility owned by Google’s Sergey Brin and Larry Page.
“The first time I came to Ames, I had the feeling I was standing between the history of spaceflight and its future,” Sagi Kfir, an aviation attorney, told me when I visited earlier this year. “You’ve got NASA labs here, but at the same time you’re in Silicon Valley,” he said. “Hard to think of a more exciting place to be.”
Kfir is 43, with a high forehead, tawny hair he wears tied in a bun, and the kind of leanness that comes from hours of yoga practice. (His wife, Britta, is an instructor.) Since 2012, he has served as DSI’s chief lawyer, a job that encompasses both legal-counsel duties — liaising with legislators, vetting contracts — and the full-time proselytization of his company’s mission: laying the foundation for an asteroid mining industry that one day will lead to a sprawling and profitable space economy.
To evangelists of asteroid mining, the heavens are not just a frontier but a vast and resource-rich place teeming with opportunity. According to NASA, there are potentially 100,000 near-Earth objects — including asteroids and comets — in the neighborhood of our planet. Some of these NEOs, as they’re called, are small.
Others are substantial and potentially packed full of water and various important minerals, such as nickel, cobalt, and iron. One day, advocates believe, those objects will be tapped by variations on the equipment used in the coal mines of Kentucky or in the diamond mines of Africa. And for immense gain: According to industry experts, the contents of a single asteroid could be worth trillions of dollars.
Kfir pitched me on the long-term plan. First, a fleet of satellites will be dispatched to outer space, fitted with probes that can measure the quality and quantity of water and minerals in nearby asteroids and comets.
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