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Deep Space Industries' lofty asteroid ambitions face high financial hurdles

A video from Deep Space Industries lays out the company's vision.

Deep Space Industries' backers say that their newly revealed plan to seek out and dig into near-Earth asteroids has already attracted interest and investors — but they also admit they're looking for much more.

"We have some investors on board," the company's CEO, David Gump, told journalists during Tuesday's briefing at California's Santa Monica Museum of Flying, "and one reason for having this press conference is to become findable by additional investors."

The event gave Gump and his partners a chance to lay out their vision for new in-space industries, ranging from asteroid reconnaissance to solar-power satellites and space settlement. However, they provided few details about their financial backers or their customers.

One potential customer is NASA, which might be interested in purchasing the data gathered by Deep Space's asteroid-hunting probes. NASA struck just such a data-purchase plan with some of the teams competing for the Google Lunar X Prize, which is aimed at encouraging the development of private-sector moon rovers.

Gump said he and other executives met with space agency officials to discuss Deep Space's plans to launch fleets of low-cost asteroid probes as early as 2015. "We found a great hunger for the idea that we can get space missions done for a much lower cost," he said. Such data could help the space agency fine-tune its plans to send astronauts to an asteroid in the mid-2020s.

Deep Space's development plan calls for launching three of its Cubesat-based reconnaissance satellites, known as FireFlies, as piggyback payloads on a yet-to-be-determined launch vehicle in 2015. Those 25-kilogram (55-pound) spacecraft would go on six-month, one-way missions to scout out near-Earth asteroids. In 2016, a 32-kilogram (70-pound) DragonFly probe would take on the first three- to four-year mission to bring up to 45 kilograms (100 pounds) of asteroid samples back to Earth.

Bryan Versteeg / Deep Space Industries

Artwork shows two FireFly spacecraft studying a near-Earth asteroid. Deep Space Industries cautioned that the artwork does not necessarily reflect the actual spacecraft design.

Bryan Versteeg / Deep Space Industries

An artist's conception shows a version of Deep Space Industries' DragonFly spacecraft grabbing a rock sample from an asteroid for return to Earth.

Bryan Versteeg / Deep Space Industries

Concept art shows a version of Deep Space Industries' Harvestor extracting materials from an asteroid.

Gump said commercial in-space processing could begin as early as 2020, facilitated by Harvestor spacecraft capable of bringing hundreds of tons of material back to Earth orbit. An industrial type of 3-D printer could turn the ground-up metal from an iron-nickel asteroid into tools and spacecraft components. More precious metals such as gold or platinum could be shipped down to Earth.

Another potentially profitable line of business would be to turn water and other material from asteroids into fuel for filling up the propellant tanks of existing communication satellites, thus extending their lives. Gump said Deep Space was discussing the concept with a major satellite operator that was "intrigued" by the idea.

John Mankins, Deep Space's chief technical officer, said the spacecraft concepts relied on existing technology. "You don't see any magic," he said. "You don't see any space elevators, you don't see any [artificial] gravity, you don't see any warp drive."

Gump said the price tag for the first three-probe mission to a near-Earth asteroid would be $20 million. If Deep Space finds a customer willing to pay that price, that would bring in a "good profit," said the company's board chairman, veteran space activist Rick Tumlinson.

Watch the full news conference at the unveiling of Deep Space Industries.

In addition to the selling the data and the more substantial products generated by asteroid missions, Deep Space could bring in money through corporate sponsorships and branding, as well as extras such as "VIP access" to a launch site or mission control center, Gump said.

"The journey of a million miles begins with a business plan that closes in the next few years," said Gump, who previously has been involved in space ventures such as LunaCorp (which proposed sending rovers to the moon), Transformational Space Corp. (which was an early competitor in NASA's space commercialization effort) and Astrobotic (which is one of the teams competing for the Google Lunar X Prize).

Will Deep Space's business plan take off? That was the big question hanging in the air after Tuesday's briefing. Planetary Resources, another commercial venture that was unveiled less than a year ago, has a business plan that's comparable to that proposed by Deep Space Industries. It also has an impressive list of billionaire investors, including Google's Eric Schmidt and Larry Page. If Planetary Resources holds to its previously announced schedule, its first prototype space telescope could be launched as early as next year.

Planetary Resources' president, Chris Lewicki, said this week that the company was "extraordinarily busy" with the task of building prototypes at its Seattle-area manufacturing facility. In contrast, Tumlinson said Deep Space Industries had not yet determined where its spacecraft would be built. "Literally, we are looking for somebody who wants to make a good offer to have this kind of budding industry there," he said.

Both companies are betting that the resources from asteroids will be valuable enough to go after in the next decade. It's entirely possible that both companies will lose that bet, particularly if space travel doesn't take off the way they expect. But if the bets pay off, both companies could be winners.

"There are 2 to 3 million near-Earth asteroids," Gump said. "There's room for everyone to prosper, I think."

Update for 2:10 p.m. ET Jan. 23: Planetary Resources emailed this comment from Lewicki, welcoming the newest member of the asteroid-hunting club: "Deep Space Industries also sees the importance of accessing and utilizing the resources of space.  Asteroid mining will open a trillion-dollar industry and provide a near-infinite supply of space-based resources to support our growth both on this planet and off." 

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Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.