The company is hoping to extract and refine metals from deep space, and sees this as a key part of its business model. AstroForge is one of a number of companies that are looking to capitalize on the untapped resources of space, and it will be interesting to see how its operations develop over the coming months and years.
AstroForge's first launch, scheduled for April 2023, will test the company's technique for refining platinum from a sample of asteroid-like material. The second launch, planned for October, will be used to scout for an asteroid near Earth that could be mined for resources.
AstroForge's missions are part of its goal to refine platinum-group metals from asteroids, with the aim of reducing the cost of mining these metals. It also hopes to reduce the massive amount of carbon dioxide emissions that come from mining rare Earth elements on Earth, Chief Executive Officer Matthew Gialich said in an interview.
"We do our refining on site, so we are refining on the asteroid itself," said Gialich. "We are not bringing back the material back to Earth to do refining. A lot of the waste you see from these mines is in the process of refinement."
AstroForge, a company based in Huntington Beach, California, came out of stealth mode in May of last year when it announced that it had raised $13 million in seed funding. The company claims that the October mission will be the first commercial deep-space flight outside of the gravity well of Earth, with the exception of one previous example.
Gialich noted that the only other example of a private company launching a vehicle into deep space is Elon Musk's Tesla, which was launched by SpaceX's Falcon Heavy in 2018. However, he stressed that this should not be considered a true mission since Musk simply launched the Tesla and then forgot about it.
AstroForge plans to launch a small standardized satellite into low-Earth orbit as one of many payloads on a SpaceX Transporter rideshare mission.
The company plans to launch its second craft in October to scout out a previously identified near-Earth asteroid for a future mining mission. The satellite will be transported by a Space Exploration Technologies Corp. rocket carrying a lunar lander from another startup, Intuitive Machines. This will be the second mission to the moon by Intuitive Machines; its first is set to launch as early as the first quarter of this year.
AstroForge plans to use the Intuitive Machines flight's deep-space destination by sending its own vehicle into lunar orbit. From there, AstroForge's 100-kilogram spacecraft will leave to head for a target asteroid. The company is not announcing the target yet and says it probably won't until they're done mining the asteroid.
AstroForge's entry into the space industry comes a few years after the collapse of the asteroid mining boom. Two of the larger companies in the field, Planetary Resources Inc. and Deep Space Industries Inc., formed roughly a decade ago with the goal of mining asteroids. However, neither company actually visited any asteroids, and both eventually ran into financial difficulties. Both companies were eventually acquired and rerouted to other endeavors.
The company will also have to work hard to make its business successful. The most that has ever been collected from an asteroid at one time is 250 grams from NASA's OSIRIS-REx mission, which is currently on its way back to Earth.
Gialich said AstroForge had learned lessons from the two companies’ failures. He said he’d spoken with Daniel Faber, the former CEO of Deep Space Industries, and that AstroForge was working with advisers from Planetary Resources to discuss how to make asteroid mining work and to select asteroids for mining.
"I believe that the biggest difference between us and those two companies is the progress we've made in the last 10-15 years," said Gialich. "We can now buy a rideshare mission to the moon."
AstroForge plans to outsource most of 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's primary focus is on developing in-space refining technology and mapping out mission trajectories, Gialich said.
Gialich said that he wants to bring the cost of mining platinum metals down to $50 an ounce, which is significantly lower than the current price of $975 an ounce. He attributes this potential decrease in price not to any unique mining technology that his company possesses, but rather to the fact that they will be mining in an area where the concentration of platinum metals is much higher than any other known ore deposit on Earth. Consequently, this makes the economic case for his company much stronger.
The company recently published a paper in coordination with the Colorado School of Mines highlighting the possible concentration of metals from asteroids that are available. The paper discusses the potential for mining these metals and how they could be used in various industries.
AstroForge plans to launch a third mission to touch down on the asteroid they’ve scouted, followed by a fourth mission that will actually attempt to land on the asteroid, extract and refine its metals, and then return to Earth if all goes well with the first two flights.
"Although we're hoping for a February 2025 launch, we know that space is unpredictable and there are always risks involved," said Gialich.
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