Startup exploration company Deep Space Industries (DSI) has announced ambitious plans to launch a series of asteroid prospecting spacecraft from 2015 onward.

Still seeking additional investors and sponsors, DSI says the initial series of FireFly craft will scout out potential target asteroids for resource exploitation following launch as hosted payloads on larger communications satellites. These initial prospecting missions will last two to six months and will pave the way for a series of sample-return flights starting in 2016.

Unlike the initial FireFly scout vehicles, each weighing around 55 lb., the sample return spacecraft will be larger, weighing up to 70 lb. Dubbed the DragonFly, the follow-on missions will return 60-150 lb. of material, and will take two to four years to make the roundtrip, the company says.

DSI’s leadership includes chairman Rick Tumlinson, the X Prize trustee and founder of commercial spacesuit company Orbital Outfitters, as well as chief executive David Gump, a co-founder of Transformational Space (t/Space) and Astrobotic Technology.

“Using resources harvested in space is the only way to afford permanent space development,” Gump says. “More than 900 new asteroids that pass near Earth are discovered every year. They can be like the Iron Range of Minnesota was for the Detroit car industry last century — a key resource located near where it was needed. In this case, metals and fuel from asteroids can expand the in-space industries of this century. That is our strategy.”

In an associated development, DSI is also unveiling a patent-pending, three-dimensional printer technology called the MicroGravity Foundry that is designed to transform raw asteroid material into complex metal parts. The foundry system comprises a 3D printer that uses lasers to draw patterns in a nickel-charged gas medium, causing the nickel to be deposited in precise patterns in zero gravity. Stephen Covey, the system inventor and DSI co-founder, says the foundry will have the edge over comparative processes because “other metal 3D printers sinter powdered metal, which requires a gravity field and leaves a porous structure, or they use low-melting-point metals with less strength.”

DSI’s entry into the race for deep-space resources follows that of asteroid mining company Planetary Resources, which is currently developing an initial prototype version of its prospecting spacecraft, the Arkyd-100 space telescope. These lightweight craft will be used to help identify suitable target near-Earth asteroids for potential exploitation. Planetary Resources, which was founded in 2009, signed a launch agreement in mid-2012 with Virgin Galactic, which plans to deliver the company’s initial spacecraft to low Earth orbit using the LauncherOne system.