Astroid-Mining Company AstroForge Books Its First Test Mission

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We’ve been hearing about asteroid mining for years, and while it wasn’t crazy to speculate on the possibility, there were plenty of barriers. However, humanity has recently studied asteroids up close, landed on them, and even shot one with a high-speed projectile. The day may be coming when asteroid mining will be viable, and a startup called AstroForge aims to be the first. This newly founded company has announced its plans to begin mining asteroids for rare metals, and it already has a test mission planned. 

Scientists estimate that even a small asteroid could hold billions of dollars worth of precious metals and other resources, but the problem is getting that material to Earth without breaking the bank. Past efforts to mine asteroids have made water their initial focus. With a supply of water, you can split it into oxygen and hydrogen for fuel. However, AstroForge is going right for the shiny stuff, saying there’s no market for fuel depots in space, and vessels like the upcoming Starship could potentially heft enough water into orbit that it’s not worth collecting it from asteroids. 

AstroForge intends to focus its efforts on resources that are in high demand here on Earth: platinum-group metals like osmium, iridium, palladium, and of course, platinum. Mining these materials on Earth is a dirty business, taking up large swaths of land and producing extensive pollution. The US, where AstroForge is based, is also not blessed with large deposits of platinum-group metals, so having an extraterrestrial source of these materials could be a boon to national security, AstroForge CEO Matt Gialich recently told Space.com. 

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx is believed to carry about 2kg of asteroid regolith, but the mission comes with an $800 million price tag.

The company claims to have developed a “lab tested” technology to process asteroid material in space so it can be returned to Earth. It has raised $13 million to fund its operations, including a flight on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket to test the tech in orbit. However, reaching an asteroid to mine it could be the real problem. 

So far, space agencies like NASA and JAXA have managed to get a few robotic probes to nearby asteroids. But “nearby” still means millions of miles. It takes years just to reach the target, and a return trip only adds to the expense. JAXA spent about $150 million on the Hayabusa2 mission to collect 5.4 grams of surface material from the asteroid Ryugu. It dropped the payload back home in 2020. Meanwhile, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission recently scooped up an estimated two kilograms of asteroid regolith, but this one cost about $800 million so far — the sample won’t be back on Earth until 2023. Unless AstroForge’s mining technology is truly revolutionary, the economics of asteroid mining is still very questionable. Hopefully, we get an update after the upcoming test flight.

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