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AstroForge aims to blaze trail for asteroid mining

by Loren Grush Bloomberg News (TNS) | January 25, 2023 at 2:19 a.m.

Asteroid-mining startup AstroForge Inc. plans to launch its first two space missions this year, hoping to extract and refine metals from deep space.

The first launch, scheduled for April, will test AstroForge's technique for refining platinum from a sample of asteroid-like material. The second, planned for October, will scout for an asteroid to mine near Earth.

The missions are part of AstroForge's goal of refining platinum-group metals from asteroids, with the aim of bringing down the cost of mining these metals. The company also hopes to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide emissions that stem from mining rare elements on Earth, CEO Matthew Gialich said.

"We do our refining on site, so we are refining on the asteroid itself," said Gialich, who previously worked at Virgin Orbit Holdings Inc. and Bird Global Inc. "We are not bringing the material back to Earth to do refining. A lot of the waste you see from these mines is in the process of refinement."

Huntington Beach, Calif.-based AstroForge came out of stealth mode in May, when the company announced $13 million in seed funding led by Initialized Capital. The company claims the October mission will be the first commercial deep-space flight outside the Earth's gravity, excluding one previous effort.

"The only other example here is Elon [Musk's] Tesla," Gialich said, referring to the car that SpaceX's Falcon Heavy launched to deep space in 2018 during its inaugural test. "I'm not going to call that a mission because he just kind of launched it to space, and then forgot about it."

AstroForge's first launch will send a small standardized satellite into low-Earth orbit. That satellite is slated to fly as one of many payloads aboard one of SpaceX's Transporter rideshare missions.

The company plans to then launch its second craft in October to scout out a previously identified near-Earth asteroid for a future mining mission. That satellite will be transported by a Space Exploration Technologies Corp. rocket carrying a lunar lander from another startup, Intuitive Machines.

AstroForge said it plans to piggyback on the deep-space destination of the Intuitive Machines flight by sending its vehicle into lunar orbit. From there, AstroForge's 100-kilogram spacecraft will head to the target asteroid.

The company said it hasn't not announcing the target and likely won't until after efforts to mine the asteroid.

LESSONS LEARNED

AstroForge's emergence in the space industry comes a few years after the demise of an asteroid mining boom. Two of the larger companies, Planetary Resources Inc. and Deep Space Industries Inc., formed roughly a decade ago with the goal of mining asteroids.

Neither company visited any asteroids and ultimately struggled financially. Both were eventually acquired and rerouted to other endeavors.

AstroForge will also have a lot to prove to make its business work. The largest amount of metal collected from an asteroid at once was 250 grams, via NASA's OSIRIS-REx mission, which is now returning to Earth.

Gialich said AstroForge learned lessons from the two companies' failures. He said he connected with Daniel Faber, the former CEO of Deep Space Industries, to discuss how to make asteroid mining work and that AstroForge was working with advisers from Planetary Resources on how to select asteroids for mining.

"I think the biggest differentiator here is we've made a lot of progress in the last 10 to 15 years since those two companies really existed ... primarily around launch," Gialich said. "I can now buy a rideshare mission to the moon."

AstroForge mostly plans to outsource the infrastructure surrounding its missions. For instance, a separate company, OrbAstro, will build its spacecraft, while AstroForge will rely on companies like SpaceX for launch. AstroForge is primarily focused on developing in-space refining technology and mapping the trajectories for the missions, Gialich said.

Gialich said he ultimately hopes to bring the cost of mining platinum metals down to $50 an ounce, from roughly $975. "This is not because we're some great mining tech or something different," he said. "It's because we're going to where the concentration of [platinum metals] is so much higher than any ore deposits we have left on Earth. And that's what really makes the economic case for us."

The company recently co-published research with the Colorado School of Mines, highlighting the possible concentration of metals from available asteroids.

If all goes well with its first two flights, AstroForge plans to launch a third mission to touch down on the asteroid they've scouted A fourth mission will attempt to land on the asteroid, and then extract and refine metals.

"If everything goes right, that mission will launch in February of 2025," Gialich said, adding: "Which means it's not going to launch in February of 2025, right? We all know space is really hard, because a lot of risk is involved."

Print Headline: AstroForge aims to blaze trail for asteroid mining

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