Still, startups are keen on mining space rocks

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

Gialic is the co-founder of a startup called AstroForge, which aims to mine platinum from asteroids, process the material in space and then sell the refined goods back on Earth. It’s a project with the potential to be hugely profitable, but also one that for decades has seen its share of trials and failures – remaining a tantalizing but elusive prospect for innovators and investors alike.

AstroForge wants to change that.

The company is set to launch its first test mission on Tuesday to demonstrate key technologies that could finally turn asteroid mining into a reality. Later this year, the startup is planning a second test flight to closely study a space rock that could become a prime target for a real mining mission.

For a company founded in 2021, it’s a timeline so ambitious it almost seems reckless. But with launch costs now a fraction of what they were a decade ago and a commercial space economy more robust than ever, AstroForge and other deep-space mining startups are preparing to move where others have failed.

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

“If we work,” he said, “it will be very profitable.” “I have no hesitation in saying that it is probably the most valuable company of all, if we succeed.”

However, there is a lot that hinges on this success. AstroForge, which last year raised $13 million in seed funding, isn’t the first private company to seriously pursue mining operations in space. A company called Planetary Resources was founded in 2009 to explore the idea of ​​automated near-Earth asteroid mining. A few years later, a competing company called Deep Space Industries was founded. Both companies have high-level investors attached. Since then both have been acquired and diverted into different segments of space technology.

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The potential payoff is a big reason the asteroid mining dream has persisted for decades. Platinum is valued at more than $32,000 per kilogram (about $15,000 per pound). Asteroids are also believed to contain other precious and rare earth minerals that are essential for the production of many consumer electronic devices. On the ground, China largely controls these raw materials, making access to them a political challenge. Other mined minerals are being depleted, raising scarcity issues for future generations.

“It’s not easy to grab platinum on the surface anymore. It’s not like you can go discover a new continent,” Gialic said. “The next frontier is really space.”

He added that mining resources in the universe will reduce environmental degradation and greenhouse gas emissions associated with mining on Earth.

Extracting precious metals in space is not an easy task. For example, metal-rich asteroids are less abundant than carbon-rich asteroids, said Richard Penzel, an astronomer who retired last year after spending 33 years teaching planetary science at MIT.

“Extracting precious metals is also very difficult and technically challenging,” he said, adding that deep space mining sounds like “a resource for the space economy in the 22nd century,” rather than something achievable in this century.

To get around some of these technological hurdles, some companies have focused on extracting water from icy deposits on the Moon or space rocks first before jumping into precious metals.

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

“We want to be incredibly modular from the start, to provide ample opportunity for applications that start exploiting these resources,” he added.

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Hunter-Scullion said it is in talks with a company to conduct a mission in early 2026 to collect samples from the moon. Moreover, the company is looking forward to sending a mission to an asteroid by around 2031.

Penzel said he has consulted potential investors on the topic of space resources before, highlighting each time the daunting challenges of such operations.

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

Gialich and Astroforge co-founder Jose Aquin are counting on that.

What sets their company apart from others that came and went before it, Gialic said, has a lot to do with timing. Access to space has opened up in recent years with increasing competition among commercial rocket companies, which has greatly reduced the costs 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 with less than two values. It’s not even in the same ballpark.”

For next week’s AstroForge test flight, the company has purchased a “rideshare” that allows its small spacecraft to be one of several payloads aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Software like this didn’t exist until a few years ago, and it’s one of the main ways AstroForge can Move quickly and keep costs manageable.

The company also tries to make use of existing processes and knowledge. Both NASA and the Japanese space agency have carried out sample return missions to asteroids, and their findings have helped AstroForge engineers formulate their missions and improve their models.

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

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

Gialic said that if all goes well, he wants to carry out the first real mining job before the end of this decade.

Ultimately, AstroForge hopes to extract 1,000 kilograms (about 22,000 pounds) of platinum or “platinum group metals,” which include rhodium, palladium and iridium, during each mission. Although the company did not disclose the price for such a pledge, Gialic said he wanted 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 is in for a nice profit. Gialic isn’t shy about the impact these margins can have, but said he’s also motivated by environmental and societal reasons to pursue mining outside the world.

“We have a fundamental crisis when it comes to buying minerals and buying commodities, and this is the perfect solution to this problem,” he said. “We are mining in space to benefit the Earth. We are trying to solve a problem facing the planet.”

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