Private Probe Proposed to Gather Asteroid Data

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 hydrogen.

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.