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starship-design: Private Asteroid Mining

Here's some good news for near-term space development that I ran across:

A small company unveiled plans today to launch the first private 
spacecraft to leave Earth's orbit, on a mission to visit a nearby
asteroid. A team of University of California, San Diego, students are 
working on the design of the Near Earth Asteroid Prospector (NEAP), 
which would be launched in 1999, says Jim Bensen, chair of Colorado-
based SpaceDev. The company hopes to turn a profit on the sale of data 
from the target asteroid, which will be chosen later and depends on the 
exact launch date. 

Bensen is betting that his company can build and launch the spacecraft 
for under $50 million--a fraction of the cost of a typical NASA space 
science mission--and offer the resulting data to government agencies for 
less than a government mission would cost. NEAP would carry a camera, a 
proton spectrometer to determine the composition of the asteroid's 
surface, and a neutron spectrometer that could detect the presence of 

The ultimate goal of the company, he adds, is to mine nearby asteroids 
for precious metals and ancient comets for hydrogen and oxygen. These 
elements could be ferried to a low-Earth orbit and turned into materials 
and propellant for other missions. SpaceDev has raised nearly all of the 
money needed to build the spacecraft from private investors, but Bensen 
declined to identify them.

(from www.sciencenow.org, 9/10/97)