Space Mining Might Become a Reality – AstroForge Is Preparing for Its First Mission

Each day, we're getting closer to what some video games or Sci-Fi books envisioned many years ago. For instance, did you know that space mining is becoming a thing? The asteroid-mining startup AstroForge Inc. announced plans to launch its first two missions to space in 2023 with the mission of extracting and refining metals from deep space.
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If we've learned something about humans, it's that we're an extremely resilient species, and we'll do anything to ensure our survival. As the global population continuously increases, we're using up our Earth's resources faster than ever. Even though we have some renewable energy sources, they're currently not enough to support our species' development. Consequently, some people are looking to outer space as an alternative resource.

As with any new industry, it takes time to obtain results – space exploration is becoming increasingly popular, especially since private companies like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, or Blue Origin have popped up. Asteroid mining has been around for decades, but only as an idea – recently, technological advancements have made it a real possibility.

One of the companies looking to develop this industry is AstroForge – last May, it secured a $13M (almost €12M) seed round to jumpstart its vision of becoming the first commercial company to mine an asteroid and bring the materials, specifically platinum-group metals, back to Earth.

Other companies, such as Planetary Resources Inc. and Deep Space Industries Inc., formed about a decade ago with the goal of mining steroids. However, neither managed to reach any asteroid and ultimately suffered financial struggles. They ended up being acquired and moved on to other purposes.

SpaceX Falcon 9 Launch
Photo: SpaceX
As with any space endeavors, there's a lot of work to be done – AstroForge will have to put in lots of effort to prove that their business can work. Material collection from an asteroid has been done before, although in tiny quantities. The most considerable amount ever collected at once was 250 grams from NASA's OSIRIS-REx mission, which by the way, is on its way back to Earth and will arrive this year.

AstroForge hopes to reduce the massive carbon dioxide emissions resulting from mining our planet's elements, as well as reduce the cost of mining. The critical part of the process is that refining happens on-site, on the asteroid itself, so waste doesn't end up on Earth. The company announced its initial demonstrator flight is readying for launch, with the first mission planned for April 2023.

Astor Forge partnered with SpaceX and an in-orbit service provider, OrbAstro, to make this feat possible. The first mission will take place aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. It aims to demonstrate Astro Falcon's refinery capabilities and validate its technologies and zero-gravity extractions. A small, standardized satellite will be among numerous payloads aboard SpaceX's Transporter rideshare missions. The spacecraft will be pre-loaded with an asteroid-like material, and the refinery payload will extract the components once it's in space.

If everything turns out successful, the second mission is planned for October 2023, on a SpaceX rocket carrying a lunar lander from another startup, Intuitive Machine. The company will again be collaborating with OrbAstro, as well as in-space propulsion company Dawn Aerospace.

SpaceX Falcon 9
Photo: SpaceX
AstroForge will piggyback on the deep-space destination of the Intuitive Machines flight by sending its vehicle into lunar orbit. Afterward, AstroForge's 100-kg (220 lb) spacecraft will head toward the target asteroid. The company has yet to announce the exact target, but it will probably do so after the mission is done.

The aim is to head to deep space to observe the target asteroid as it prepares for the first retrieval mission. AstroForge claims this will be the first commercial deep-space flight outside the gravity well of our planet, excluding one previous example.

The CEO of AstroForge, Matthew Gialich, explained that the only other example is Elon's Tesla – he referred to SpaceX's Falcon Heavy mission into deep space in 2018. He also said it's not really a mission because he launched the rocket to space with a Tesla Roadster attached to it, with no plans of the spacecraft ever returning.

According to Bloomberg, if these two flights are successful, AstroForge plans a third mission in February 2025 to touch down on the scouted asteroid, followed by a fourth mission to land, extract, and refine the metals, and then head back home to Earth.

SpaceX Falcon 9
Photo: SpaceX
However, as we've all seen, it takes a lot of work to respect deadlines when it comes to space exploration. And rightfully so, as so many factors and details need to be covered, that it's almost impossible to correctly estimate how long it will take to get the work done. Still, if the missions succeed, AstroForge will open the doors to brand-new possibilities for mining – it's not so important whether it happens three years from now, five years from now, or even more.
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About the author: Mircea Mazuru
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Starting out with a motorcycle permit just because he could get one two years earlier than a driver's license, Mircea keeps his passion for bikes (motor or no motor) alive to this day. His lifelong dream is to build his own custom camper van.
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