Space startup schedules launch to test asteroid mining and ore refining in orbit
Subsequent flights will enter deep space to study and eventually mine a nearby space rockBy Cal Jeffrey
In a nutshell: A space-mining startup called AstroForge intends to mine asteroids for their mineral content. The company has two missions planned for 2023 to test the project's viability. The first will demonstrate zero-g refinement while in orbit, and the second will slingshot around the moon to study its target rock in deep space.
AstroForge's first mission is slated for April. It will hitch a ride on SpaceX's Transporter-7 rideshare rocket. The trip will show investors the company can extract and refine ore in space. The team will use a 6U CubeSat loaded with "astroid-like" material to test its techniques in zero gravity. It has already proven its refinery can operate in a vacuum.
AstroForge didn't have a date ironed out for its second mission other than that it would be later this year. For that one, the company intends to enter deep space and collect data from the surface of an asteroid.
AstroForge has advisors from several universities, the Planetary Science Institute, and NASA helping to identify exploitable space rocks. The team recently published a study with the Colorado School of Mines that looked at the metal content of asteroids and how they could be extracted and sold on Earth or be used in space.
A question left by the study was, do mineral-rich asteroids have an identifiable surface texture? The company believes they do. Its second sojourn into space looks to confirm that theory by approaching a specifically targeted asteroid and studying its surface with high-resolution images.
Of course, the company is not revealing the location of the asteroid it will be looking at for obvious reasons. AstroForge CEO Matt Gialich would only say that "it is closer to home than, say, a rock in the asteroid belt that's between Mars and Jupiter."
"The asteroid belts, they're far away, they would take us like 14-year round trips," Gialich told TechCrunch. "It's something that is much better suited for research and exploration … That's not a viable business case for us."
The rock AstroForge has in mind is only an 11-month trip. It will launch its craft into a lunar orbit with a Houston space startup called Intuitive Machines. From there, it will make the final trek to its chosen asteroid.
Even though it has yet to get off the planet, AstroForge is already in the planning process for its next couple of missions. The third would be to land a craft on an asteroid, and the fourth, to refine and transport platinum back to Earth.
It's a much more daunting task, but Gialich believes his team has it figured out.
"We have to find some way to go get the regolith off the asteroid and process it in our refinery, and we believe we've solved that for our target asteroid," he said.