Asteroid mining has long caught the imagination of space entrepreneurs, but conventional wisdom has always been that it’s little more than a pipe dream. That may be about to change after a startup announced plans to launch two missions this year designed to validate its space mining technology.
There are estimated to be trillions of dollars worth of precious metals locked up in asteroids strewn throughout the solar system. Given growing concerns about the scarcity of key materials required for batteries and other electronics, there’s been growing interest in attempts to extract these resources.
The enormous cost of space missions and the huge technical challenges involved in mining in space have led many to dismiss the idea as unworkable. The industry has already seen one boom and bust cycle after leading players like Deep Space Industries folded after investors lost their nerve.
But now, California-based startup AstroForge has taken concrete steps toward its goal of becoming the first company to mine an asteroid and bring the materials back to Earth. This year it will launch two missions, one designed to test out its in-space mineral extraction technology and another that will carry out a survey mission of a promising asteroid close to Earth.
“With a finite supply of precious metals on Earth, we have no other choice than to look to deep space to source cost-effective and sustainable materials,” CEO and co-founder Matt Gialich said in a statement.
The company, which raised $13 million in seed funding last April, is planning to target asteroids rich in platinum group metals in deep space. These materials are in major demand in many high-tech industries, but their reserves are limited and geographically concentrated. Extracting them can also be very environmentally damaging.
AstroForge is developing mineral refining technology that it hopes will allow it to extract precious metals from these asteroids and return them to Earth. A prototype will catch a lift into orbit on a spacecraft designed by OrbAstro and launched by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in April. It will be pre-loaded with asteroid-like material, which it will then attempt to vaporize and sort into its different chemical constituents.
Then in October, the company will attempt an even more ambitious mission. A 220-pound spacecraft also designed by OrbAstro, called Brokkr-2, will attempt an 8-month journey to reach an asteroid orbiting the sun about 22 million miles from Earth. It will carry a host of instruments designed to assess the target asteroid in situ.
Both of these missions are precursors designed to test out systems that will be needed for AstroForge’s first proper asteroid mining mission, expected later this decade. The company plans to target asteroids between 66 to 4,920 feet in diameter and break them apart from a distance before collecting the remains.
Even if these missions are a success, there’s still a long road towards making space mining practical. According to research AstroForge recently conducted with the Colorado School of Mines, the bulk of metal-rich asteroids are found in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, which is currently a 14-year round trip.
Nonetheless, off-world mining does appear to be having somewhat of a renaissance, with dozens of space resources startups springing up in recent years. If AstroForge succeeds in proving out its technology this year, it could give this fledgling industry a major boost.
Image Credit: NASA