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Humanity will soon begin to extract minerals from asteroids - the first missions will start in 2023.
Startup AstroForge plans to launch the first two missions to mine rare metals in space as early as 2023. The first launch, scheduled for April, will test AstroForge's technology to clean up platinum in Earth orbit from an asteroid sample. And in October, the company plans to explore the asteroid for mining in deep space.
Huntington Beach, Calif.-based AstroForge caught the public's attention last May when it announced it had raised $13 million in seed funding through Initialized Capital. These funds were used to develop technologies for processing asteroids. Two test flights are planned this year. They are part of AstroForge's plan to mine and refine platinum group metals from asteroids to reduce the cost of obtaining them. Another challenge is to reduce the carbon emissions associated with the development of rare earths on our own planet.
“We are processing in situ, processing the asteroid itself. We do not ship ore to Earth for processing,” said AstroForge chief executive Matthew Gialich, formerly of Virgin Orbit Holdings and Bird Global.
AstroForge's first launch in April will send a small satellite into low Earth orbit, which will be one of the many payloads of the SpaceX Transporter mission. The task of this satellite will be to prove the very possibility of mining and processing ore - for this, it will have a test sample of ore on board, similar in its characteristics to an asteroid.
In October, the company plans to launch its second ship to survey a previously discovered near-Earth asteroid for a future mining mission. This satellite will be carried into space by a SpaceX rocket along with a lunar lander from another space startup, Intuitive Machines. By the way, it is planned that this flight will be the second mission of Intuitive Machines to the Moon, the first descent vehicle should be launched in February-March of this year.
AstroForge has said it plans to send its craft into lunar orbit. From there, a 100-kilogram spacecraft will head towards the asteroid. AstroForge hasn't given an exact target and likely won't until the asteroid's mining is complete.
The company says the October mission will be the first commercial deep space flight outside of Earth's gravity well, with one exception. “The only other example here is Ilona’s Tesla,” Gialich jokes, referring to the car that was launched into deep space in 2018 during testing. “But it’s hard to call it a mission because he just launched it into space and then forgot about it.”
AstroForge's entry into the space industry comes a few years after a failed asteroid mining attempt. Two large companies, Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries, formed about a decade ago with the goal of mining asteroids. Expeditions to space were never sent, and the companies eventually suffered financial failure.
Gialich stated that AstroForge learned from the failures of the two companies: “I think the biggest difference here is that we have made a lot of progress in the last 10 to 15 years since those two companies really existed, mostly in regards to launch. For example, now I can buy a trip to the moon.”
AstroForge plans to transfer many infrastructure tasks to contractors. The spacecraft itself is being built by OrbAstro, and SpaceX is responsible for the launches. AstroForge is focused on developing in-space ore refining technology and determining flight paths. The company hopes to reduce the cost of mining platinum group metals from $30 per gram to $1.50. The company comes from a study conducted in collaboration with the Colorado School of Mines, which showed that the concentration of platinum metals in asteroids is much higher than in any terrestrial ores.
With the success of the first two flights, AstroForge plans to launch a third expedition to land on the explored asteroid. The fourth mission will try to extract and refine the mined ore, and then return to Earth.
The company has a thorny path to the stars. So far, the largest amount of material ever collected from an asteroid was 250 grams. Now this valuable cargo is just approaching the Earth as part of the NASA OSIRIS-REx mission.
“If all goes well, the fourth mission will launch in February 2025,” Gialich predicts, adding humorously, “Which means it won’t launch in February 2025, right? We all know that space is unpredictable and comes with a lot of risk."