A race is on to mine billions of dollars in resources from the solar system’s asteroids, fuelling our future among the stars
In an industrial park in San Jose, California, Grant Bonin is holding what looks like the end of a metal water bottle. It is the casing, he jokes, of his company’s “flying steam kettle”: a propulsion system for small spacecraft that uses super-hot water vapour, heated to 1,000C (1,832F), to produce thrust. The company has sold about 40 to date. “It comes right out of the hole,” explains Bonin, who is the chief technology officer of Deep Space Industries (DSI).
It is literally rocket science, but the ultimate aim of Bonin’s startup is even more audacious: mining asteroids. No private company has even got close to one. One of the main reasons asteroids will be mined in the future, so the thinking goes, is for the water locked in their clay deposits – and one of the chief uses of that water is likely to be as propellant for spacecraft. Probes and other spacecraft will be able to refuel in space either directly with water, or the hydrogen and oxygen that can be created from it, enabling them to zip around merrily anywhere they want with no end to their useful life. But before the idea of a solar system dotted with gas stations is realised, what is needed are more spacecraft that can actually run on water, which is where selling flying steam kettles comes in.