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Startups are still keen to mine space rocks

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Matt Gialich knows the universe’s potential is 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 material in space, and sell the refined goods on Earth. It is a venture with hugely lucrative potential, but also one that has seen its share of attempts and failures over the decades, making it an intriguing but elusive prospect for both innovators and investors. It’s still

AstroForge wants to change that.

The company will begin its first test mission on Tuesday, ultimately demonstrating key technology that will make asteroid mining a reality. Later this year, the startup plans a second test flight to study the space rock up close, a potential prime target for real-life mining missions.

For a company founded in 2021, this is a recklessly ambitious timeline. But now that launch costs are a fraction of what they were a decade ago, and the commercial space economy is more robust than ever, AstroForge and other deep space mining start-ups are lining up where others are. We are ready to pick up where we failed.

Gialich knows that a successful test would transform not only his company, but the entire space industry.

“Hopefully this is very lucrative,” he said. “I have no hesitation that if we succeed, we will probably be the most valuable company ever created.”

Yet much depends on its success. AstroForge, which raised $13 million in seed funding last year, isn’t the first private company to seriously pursue a mining business in space. A company called Planetary Resources was founded in 2009 to explore the idea of ​​robotic mining of near-Earth asteroids. A few years later, a competitor called Deep Space Industries was founded. Both companies had prominent investors. Both have since been acquired and pivoted into various space technology sectors.

A big reason the dream of asteroid mining has been around for decades is the potential payoff. Platinum is worth over $32,000 per kilogram (almost $15,000 per pound). Asteroids are also believed to contain other precious and rare earth metals that are essential in the manufacture of many consumer electronics. On Earth, these raw materials are largely controlled by China, making access to them politically difficult. Other mined minerals are depleted, creating scarcity problems for future generations.

“There’s no more platinum to easily grab onto the surface. It’s not like we can discover new continents,” says Gialich. “The next frontier is truly space.”

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

Extracting precious metals in space is no easy task. For example, Richard Binzel, an astronomer who retired last year after teaching planetary science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for 33 years, said metal-rich asteroids are less abundant than carbon-rich asteroids.

“Extracting precious metals is also very difficult, technically challenging,” he said, noting that deep space mining is more of a “resource for the 22nd century space economy” than something that can be achieved in this century. He added that it looks like

To overcome some of these technological hurdles, some companies are focusing on mining water first from lunar ice deposits or space rocks before jumping to precious metals. .

This is the sort 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 envisions “Swiss he’s army his knife his approach.” says there is. Missions are tailored to extract any material of customer interest, including water, precious metals and other raw materials.

“We want to be incredibly modular from offset to provide a wide range of opportunities for applications that start leveraging these resources,” he added.

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

Binzel has previously consulted potential investors on the topic of space-based resources, and each time he has highlighted the enormous challenges of such undertakings.

“I tell them they have to have a very long time horizon,” he said. “Right now, the technological gap is too wide for me personally to 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 hope so.

Gialich said that what sets their company apart from others he’s been in before has a lot to do with coincidence. In recent years, increased competition among commercial rocket companies has greatly reduced the cost of launching into orbit, opening up access to space.

“When Planetary Resources existed, if you wanted to go to the moon, it would have cost you $400 million,” he said. “We can do it for two orders of magnitude less. Not even in the same ballpark.”

For AstroForge’s test flights next week, the company has purchased a “rideshare” that allows small spacecraft to be one of several payloads to be carried on SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets. A program like this didn’t exist a few years ago. This is one of the key ways AstroForge can move quickly and keep costs under control.

The company is also looking to leverage existing processes and knowledge. Both NASA and the Japanese space agency have conducted sample return missions to asteroids, and their discoveries helped AstroForge engineers create missions and refine models.

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

The goal of AstroForge’s first mission is to demonstrate that the company can successfully refine materials in low-Earth orbit. This requires heating a piece of metal until it changes from a solid state to a gas and then irradiating it with microwaves to ionize the gaseous metal or positively charge the atoms. Magnets are then used to separate the precious metal from other substances that may be present in space rocks.

If all goes well, Gialich said he hopes to have the first full-scale mining mission before the end of the decade.

Ultimately, AstroForge hopes to extract 1,000 kilograms (about 22,000 pounds) of platinum, or “platinum group metals,” including rhodium, palladium, and iridium on each mission. The company hasn’t disclosed pricing for such a project, but Gialich said it hopes to keep costs around $10 million per launch.

If AstroForge can pull asteroid mining out of science fiction, the company could make a good profit. Gialich isn’t shy about the impact these margins can have, but he says environmental and social reasons are driving the pursuit of extraterrestrial mining.

“We are facing a fundamental crisis when it comes to sourcing metals and sourcing commodities, and this is the perfect solution to that problem,” he said. “We are mining space to benefit the planet. We are trying to solve the problems facing the planet.”

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