Years after initial space-mining ventures went bust, startup AstroForge has announced two missions in 2023 to obtain rare minerals from a near-Earth asteroid.

OSIRIS-REx touches down on near-Earth asteroid Bennu in an artist's illustration
A sign of things to come? An artist’s depiction of NASA's OSIRIS-REx ready for touchdown on asteroid Bennu in 2020.
NASA / Goddard / University of Arizona

Asteroid mining is back in the news. In January, California-based startup AstroForge announced that in 2023 it will lay the foundations to become the first commercial company to mine an asteroid and bring the materials back to Earth. Two missions launching in April and October 2023, both on SpaceX rockets, will test technology and survey a target asteroid.

It’s an exciting proposition, but haven’t we heard all of this before? Over the years, similarly ambitious companies have claimed to be on the cusp of the impossible, among them Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries, neither of whom could ultimately finance their plans. What makes AstroForge different?

“The space infrastructure on Earth is pretty mature and we can buy a fairly high-energy launch for a fairly low cost,” says Jose Acain, AstroForge’s cofounder and Chief Technology Officer. He adds that there are also now a lot of satellite manufacturers to choose from; for its CubeSat tests launching this year, AstroForge has chosen Orb Astro in Oxford in the U.K.

“A lot of capital expenses that we would have had if we had started this company 10 or 15 years ago, we don't have now,” Acain adds, “so we can really focus on the actual mining tech that we need to actually extract these platinum-group metals from these asteroids.”

The platinum-group metals (PGMs) — iridium, osmium, palladium, platinum, rhodium, and ruthenium — which are among the rarest mineral commodities in Earth’s crust. Just 30 tonnes of rhodium, used in catalytic converters, are mined every year, and only three tonnes of iridium. Mostly these minerals come from mines in South Africa, Siberia, with some mines in the U.S. and Canada.

But Acain coauthored a paper published in the January Planetary and Space Science suggesting PGMs are abundant in meteorites. “From studying the meteorite database, we found that in general there is a higher concentration of PGMs regardless of what asteroid type you go after, but it’s significantly higher if you go after metallic M-types,” says Acain.

However, meteorites might present a misleading picture, because anything that survives the fall to Earth is more likely to be metal-rich. In space, metal-rich asteroids only make up around 5% of the asteroid population, and only a handful of those are within the grasp of would-be asteroid miners. But for Acain, less is more.

“We can only access a subset of the total asteroid population, but it’s not based solely on accessibility and type,” says Acain. He confirms that AstroForge’s target list contains a large number of strong candidates. “If you find a large accessible metal-rich asteroid that you can keep going back to it over and over again, that would be enough,” he adds.

“The appeal of asteroid mining is elements that are rare in the Earth’s crust may be found near the surface of some asteroids, where they could be relatively easy to access,” says Michael Brown (Monash University). “But developing the technology to robotically and effectively mine tons of raw material from distant asteroids won’t be easy.”

AstroForge plans to start small, literally, with its first CubeSat the size of two loaves of bread. Its first mission will test in-situ refining in a zero-gravity environment. “That’s really the piece that we see as the highest risk because it's unproven technology in space,” says Acain. “So we’re launching a CubeSat up to low Earth orbit to understand and characterize our refinery in those harsh environments.”

The long-term plan is to have much larger spacecraft mine the surface of M-type asteroids and return to Earth only refined PGMs. It’s a big jump. “Scaling that up to return commercially viable quantities of processed material from asteroids millions of kilometers away is going to be difficult,” says Brown.

AstroForge will fly its CubeSat on a Falcon 9 as part of SpaceX’s Transporter-7 mission, which will launch out of Vandenberg Space Force Base in California this April. The mission is expected to last between 18 months and two years before burning up in Earth’s atmosphere.

In October, a second mission will see a spacecraft sent on an 8- to 11-month journey (depending on the exact launch date) to prospect a specific near-Earth asteroid. Exactly which one is top secret, but it was chosen because it will be relatively easy to frequently return to. That CubeSat will hitch a ride with Intuitive Machine’s IM-1 mission to the Moon.

“We’ll take advantage of that high-energy launch so we don't have to carry as much propellant,” said Acain. “It’s a prospecting mission to understand kind of the surfaces of our target asteroids and see potential landing sites for future missions.”

While it’s only a brief flyby the spacecraft will take many images of the asteroid’s surface and its impact craters to see what type it is. Next will come a more detailed prospecting mission followed by an all-important fourth mission when mining begins.

“I hope the satellites are successful, but there are good reasons for caution,” said Brown. “The small satellites that will be flown in 2023 have masses of kilograms and budgets of millions, but commercial space mining missions would have masses of many tons and budgets of billions.”

AstroForge plans to take it milestone by milestone, but Acain thinks it’s an absolute necessity to extract these rare minerals off-Earth. “We have a finite supply of resources here on Earth – that’s a fact – and there's more demand for these resources than ever before,” he says. The present mining process, he adds, is costly and polluting. “Taking it off-Earth is the only way we see to solve all of these issues.”



Image of Robert-LaPorta


February 27, 2023 at 10:47 am

"Are We Finally on the Cusp of Commercial Asteroid Mining?"


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Anthony Barreiro

February 27, 2023 at 2:55 pm

Betteridge's Law of Headlines: When the headline asks a question, the answer is always "no."

That said, it sounds like Astro Forge is taking a prudent step-by-step approach. Whether or not they ultimately succeed in mining asteroids, useful information and maybe even currently unimagined applications could come from these missions.

By the way, our current supply of rare elements would last much longer if we create closed-loop manufacturing processes that integrate reclamation and reuse into product design and production. Otherwise eventually we will need to figure out how to mine rare earth elements from discarded cell phones in landfills.

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February 27, 2023 at 11:46 am

This is similar to the fantasy of mining Helium-3 on the moon.

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Alain Maury

February 28, 2023 at 2:06 am

The first possible answer is philosophical. Should we pollute outside of the Earth, and as far as I'm concerned, the answer is no. The rest of the universe is pristine and we should keep it that way. And that's valid for low Earth orbit, to above (That's for Elon Schmuck and similar persons). There is already 250 tons of human crap on the moon, no need for more.The second is commercial. If we look at it from a point of a normal person (i.e. a person who does not get its money from launching rockets, building satellites, who knows that Star Trek was not a documentary, etc..., i.e. the vast majority of us), it will always be more economical to recycle the material on earth, than to go 500 millions of km away, extract it in a super dificult environment, then bring it back to Earth. Humanity should work in reducing its overpopulation, produce more intelligently, build cars which can run a million km without needing replacement, with parts which are designed to be recycled, etc... I do understand that some people think otherwise, just that at one point, they'll have to rethink, and understand humanity is bound to stay on Earth, and live with it. Tsiolkovsky said that humanity was not to stay in her cradle forever. He just forgot that if you go out of the cradle, you just fall on the floor and die.

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Yaron Sheffer

February 28, 2023 at 8:35 am

Alain, just like Star Trek, the cradle saying should not be taken too literally 😉
I knew this would be an emotional topic. But humanity is destined to at least expand all over our solar system. Yes, our cradle is broken and polluted, and, alas, we shall do the same to all solar system worlds in the name of progress... unless we manage to destroy ourselves first.
The next big step of going to the stars will be extremely challenging, but there is already talk about how to pollute neighbouring exo-solar systems...
Philosophically, our cradle is a spaceship. We have been space faring for millions of years. We are made of star stuff, and we are the result of pristine processes in this Universe. Such pristine activities include bombardment of planets and moons, which send meteorites careening all over the solar system. Nothing is 100% isolated nor insulated from such aftereffects.

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Tony Flanders

March 3, 2023 at 10:58 am

Here are a couple of thoughts. First of all, Yaron Sheffer says "humanity is destined to at least expand all over our solar system." No doubt that's true in some sense; in fact humanity has arguably already expanded all over our solar system with interplanetary probes. Whether humans will ever live in significant numbers anywhere other than Earth, however, is an open question. It's worth noting that there's much more rapid progress in robotics than in human life-support systems.

Second, Alain Maury alludes to the fascinating philosophical issue of polluting other solar-system bodies. A more immediate concern to me is the affect of widespread spaceflight and reentry on Earth's atmosphere and orbital environment. I find it hard to imagine that mining asteroids could be done without producing more pollution right down here on Earth than conventional mining does.

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March 5, 2023 at 6:46 pm

The probability of successful mining, processing and returning said spoils to the Earth safely and at a profit are next to nil.
If there were pure gold bars just lying on the surface of an asteroid, it's highly doubtful you could bring them to Earth and not lose money.
We are not running out of anything on Earth except common sense. The Earth is not broken and least not 99.9999% of it. In fact, many areas are much cleaner than they were 50 years ago. There are regimes (mostly dictatorships) that lack any kind of EPA but most areas of the Earth are still pristine. Yes, there are political and celebrity types that claim we are doomed and the Earth will be destroyed in 12 years. However, most of them could not tell the difference between an asteroid and a hemorrhoid.
Star Trek is a fantasy based on impossible physics and technologies. It's strictly for fun (and profit).

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