Startups are still eager to mine space rocks

Startups are still eager to mine space rocks

Startups are still eager to mine space rocks

Matt Gialich knows the cosmic odds are stacked against him, but he doesn’t seem to care.

Gialich is the co-founder of a startup called AstroForge, which aims to mine platinum from asteroids, process the materials in space, and then resell the refined products back to Earth. It’s a venture that has the potential to be hugely profitable, but it’s also one that has seen its share of trial and error for decades, remaining a tantalizing but elusive prospect for innovators and investors alike.

AstroForge wants to change that.

The company plans to launch its first test mission on Tuesday to demonstrate key technologies that could finally make asteroid mining a reality. Later this year, the startup has planned a second test flight to get a closer look at a space rock that could become a prime target for a real mining mission.

For a company founded in 2021, that’s such an ambitious timeline that it almost seems rash. But with launch costs now a fraction of what they were a decade ago and a commercial space economy as robust as ever, AstroForge and other deep space mining startups are poised to pick up where others have failed.

Gialich knows that if the tests are successful, they will transform not only his company but also the entire space industry.

“If we sort it out, that’s very, very profitable,” he said. “I have no hesitation in saying it is probably the most valuable company ever created, if we are successful.”

Still, there’s a lot that hinges on that success. AstroForge, which raised $13 million in seed funding last year, is hardly the first private firm to seriously pursue mining operations in space. A company called Planetary Resources was formed in 2009 to explore the idea of ​​robotically mining a near-Earth asteroid. A few years later, a competitor called Deep Space Industries was founded. Both firms had high-profile investors attached. Both have since been acquired and have branched out into different areas of space technology.

The potential payoff is a big reason the dream of asteroid mining has persisted for decades. Platinum is valued at over $32,000 per kilogram (nearly $15,000 per pound). Asteroids are also believed to contain other precious metals and rare earths which are essential for the production of many consumer electronic devices. On Earth, these raw materials are largely controlled by China, making access to them politically challenging. Other mined minerals are running out, creating scarcity problems for future generations.

“There is no more easy-to-grab platinum on the surface. It’s not like you can go and discover some new continent,” Gialich said. “The next frontier really is space.”

He added that mineral resources in the cosmos will reduce environmental degradation and associated greenhouse gas emissions that result from mining on Earth.

Mining precious metals in space is not an easy task. For one thing, metal-rich asteroids are less abundant than carbon-rich asteroids, said Richard Binzel, an astronomer who retired last year after spending 33 years teaching planetary science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“Even the mining of precious metals is extraordinarily difficult and technologically challenging,” he said, adding that deep space mining looks more like an “asset to the 22nd century space economy,” rather than something that can be achieved in this century.

To overcome some of these technological hurdles, some companies have focused on extracting water from icy deposits on the moon or space rocks before turning to precious metals.

It’s the kind of strategy pursued by UK-based Asteroid Mining Corp.. Like AstroForge, the company aims to mine platinum from asteroids, but its founder and CEO Mitch Hunter-Scullion said he envisions a “Swiss army knife approach” where missions are tailored to mine whatever material is of interest to customers. , be it water, precious metals or other raw materials.

“We want to be incredibly modular from the start, to provide a broad opportunity for applications to start leveraging these assets,” he added.

Hunter-Scullion said it is in talks with a company to conduct a mission in early 2026 to collect samples from the moon. Beyond that, the company expects a mission to an asteroid around 2031.

Binzel said that he has already consulted potential investors on the topic of space assets and has highlighted the enormous challenges of such operations each time.

“I tell them they have to have a very long time horizon,” he said. “The technology gap is too large right now that I personally don’t see it as economically viable in this century. But I always add that it would be great if I was wrong.

Gialich and AstroForge co-founder Jose Acain are counting on this.

Gialich said what sets their company apart from others that have come and gone before has a lot to do with serendipitous timing. Access to space has opened up in recent years as competition between commercial rocket companies has increased, significantly reducing the cost of launching into orbit.

“When Planetary Resources was around, if you wanted to go to the moon, it would cost you $400 million,” he said. “We can do it for two orders of magnitude less. It’s not even in the same ballpark.

For next week’s AstroForge test flight, the company bought a “rideshare” that allows their tiny spacecraft to be one of several payloads aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. years ago, and it’s a key way AstroForge is able to move quickly and keep costs manageable.

The company also seeks to leverage existing processes and knowledge. NASA and the Japanese space agency have both flown sample return missions to asteroids, and their findings have helped AstroForge engineers create their missions and refine their models.

“What we’re doing is just taking what they’ve done and trying to make it cheaper,” Gialich said. “NASA built a Ferrari and we’re trying to build a Honda Civic.”

The goal of AstroForge’s first mission is to demonstrate that the company can refine materials in low Earth orbit. This will involve heating a piece of metal until it turns from a solid state into a gas, then bombarding it with microwaves to ionize the gaseous metal or positively charge the atoms. The magnets will then be used to separate precious metals from other materials that might be present on a space rock.

Hopefully, Gialich said, he wants to complete the first real mining mission by the end of this decade.

Eventually, AstroForge hopes to mine 1,000 kilograms (about 22,000 pounds) of platinum, or “platinum group metals,” which include rhodium, palladium, and iridium, during each mission. While the company hasn’t disclosed the price of that venture, Gialich said it wants to keep the cost at around $10 million per launch.

If AstroForge can take asteroid mining out of the realm of science fiction, the company will earn a tidy profit. Gialich isn’t shy about the impact these margins could have, but he said he’s equally driven by environmental and social reasons to pursue off-world mining.

“We have a fundamental crisis when it comes to the supply of metals and raw materials, and this is a perfect solution to this problem,” he said. “We are mining space for the benefit of the Earth. We are trying to solve a problem that afflicts the planet”.

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