The OrbAstro ORB-50 satellite platform will host a variety of instruments needed to evaluate the target asteroid from a distance.
SCHEDULED FOR LAUNCH IN OCTOBER, ASTROFORGE’S PROSPECTOR SPACECRAFT WILL SEEK TO INSPECT AN ASTEROID LOCATED 22 MILLION MILES FROM EARTH.
AstroForge has announced an ambitious commercial mission to observe a distant asteroid—an important step for the California startup as it strives to become the world’s first deep space mining company.
AstroForge seeks to capitalize on the rapidly evolving state of the spaceflight industry and become the first firm to mine for metals in deep space. The California startup raised $13 million in seed funding last year—its first year of existence—and has now formally announced two mining-related missions that are scheduled to launch within the calendar year. The company is partnering with several others to make it happen, including OrbAstro, Dawn Aerospace, and Intuitive Machines.
Space is the place, as Sun Ra famously said, and it most certainly has plenty to offer, including rare-earth metals like platinum, gold, iridium, palladium, and osmium, among other minerals. Materials on a single asteroid could fetch trillions of dollars, making asteroid mining a tantalizing prospect. This idea has been around for decades, but the excessive costs associated with the endeavor have largely made it impossible. That’s changing, however, as it’s never been more affordable to launch rockets and manufacture satellites and spacecraft.
AstroForge is targeting platinum-group metals, or PGMs, which are used across a variety of industries. The precious rare-earth metal palladium, for example, is used in catalytic converters, which is why these automotive components are often targeted by thieves. “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,” Matt Gialich, CEO and co-founder of AstroForge, said in a statement.
The first of AstroForge’s two missions is slated to launch in April. A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will launch a 6U cubesat pre-packed with asteroid-like materials. Working in Earth orbit, the OrbAstro-built cubesat will attempt to vaporize and sort the materials into their elemental components.
The second mission, scheduled to launch in October, raises the stakes. A Falcon 9 rideshare mission chartered by Intuitive Machines will attempt to send a spacecraft, called Brokkr-2, to an asteroid in a heliocentric orbit located 22 million miles (35.4 million kilometers) away. Brokkr-2, based on OrbAstro’s ORB-50 satellite bus, will observe the target asteroid from a distance in preparation for the company’s first bona fide asteroid retrieval mission. When the time comes, AstroForge intends to target asteroids measuring 66 to 4,920 feet (20 to 1,500 meters) in diameter and, instead of landing on the objects, will break apart the asteroids from a distance and collect the valuable aggregate materials.
OrbAstro, with offices in the U.K., New Zealand, and Germany, is building the 220-pound (100-kilogram) Brokkr-2 probe, which will carry a host of payloads associated with the in-space evaluation of asteroids. Powered by a Dawn Aerospace propulsion system and boosted by a lunar gravity assist, Brokkr-2 will reach its target asteroid following an eight-month journey, according to OrbAstro.
Whether or not deep space asteroid mining will prove to be a sustainable and profitable enterprise remains an unanswered question, but genuine attempts to make it happen are now officially underway. I have no qualms about exploiting distant asteroids, which serve no useful purpose as they orbit around the Sun. What’s more, mining on Earth can be reprehensibly detrimental, as it harms ecosystems, ruins lives and landscapes, and churns out greenhouse gases.
The problem with asteroid mining is what it potentially does to Earth, whether it be harms imposed by an excessive number of rocket launches, the processing of these materials in factories, and a preponderance of new products destined for landfills. Whether you’re for or against asteroid mining, or just ambivalent, it’s clear we need to be having these conversations.