Welcome to Quartz’s newsletter on the economic possibilities of the extraterrestrial sphere. Please forward widely, and let me know what you think. This week: Asteroid mining gets another shot, Starliner returns to Earth, and NRO splashes the cash.
Is asteroid mining back?
Robots harvesting rare resources in space so we can use them here on Earth is an idea that captures the imagination. Two start-ups, Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources, made a run at the business in the last decade, winning some important legal battles and launching demo missions. Both failed when it became apparent that actual space mining was well out of their reach.
AstroForge, a start-up that emerged from the incubator Y Combinator, said today that it raised $13 million to launch a spacecraft capable of demonstrating in-space mineral refining in 2023. If all goes according to plan, the company wants to start bringing back metals in the valuable platinum group from asteroids near the Earth by the end of the decade.
AstroForge’s two founders, CEO Matt Gialich and CTO Jose Acain, acknowledge their plan is risky. They believe they can learn from the pitfalls that captured their predecessors, and that the space industry has evolved to support feasible businesses in deep space.
The co-founders participated in the “access to space revolution,” as Gialich puts it, while working at launch companies Virgin Orbit and SpaceX. Now, their company can benefit from cheaper, more frequent rocket launches to test and deploy its spacecraft. The large number of private missions to the Moon planned in the next decade also create opportunities to share transportation to deep space. Meanwhile, the number of companies building low-cost spacecraft and their components has expanded. AstroForge will buy its vehicle from OrbAstra, for example.
The founders said they wouldn’t discuss specifically how their spacecraft will find asteroids and extract material from them, but they argue that “the only thing that hasn’t been demonstrated is the refinery operation in space.”
They will launch a spacecraft on the next SpaceX ride share mission, in late 2022, with a payload that can refine pure metals from an “asteroid” created on Earth to match the properties of future targets in deep space. If that demonstration succeeds, the founders believe they will be able to develop a full-scale mining mission.
Getting a robotic spacecraft to an asteroid, examining it, and harvesting samples from it are proven capabilities thanks to projects like Japan’s Hayabusa-2 and NASA’s OSIRIS-REx, but those vehicles collected samples measured in grams. China recently launched a sample return mission from the Moon that brought back 2 kg of lunar soil.
If that was 2 kg of pure platinum, it would be worth about $64,000 at today’s spot prices—a lot of money, but not equal to the cost of a space mission. While the two founders aren’t ready to talk specifically about solving the major challenge of bringing resources back to Earth in bulk, they say AstroForge will return samples “bigger than any space agency.”
Still, if getting platinum metals from space is hard, mining them on Earth is not exactly easy. Most platinum deposits are found in South Africa and Russia, where it is extracted from open pit mines with nasty environmental consequences and poor treatment of workers. Yet these metals are in high demand for their usefulness in technology that is vital to transitioning away from carbon energy. Figuring out a new source of these metals in real quantity could have tangible benefits.
Huntington Beach-based AstroForge is now looking to build out its team with physics and engineering experts. Asked why he took on the challenge of asteroid mining over a potentially easier business model, Gailich says his company is a passion project.
“All of the other ideas are boring,” he says. “Thrusters or another satellite bus or another company taking pictures of the Earth?”
Instead, Gailich and Acain pitched an idea that investors considered crazy, at least at first. And now they’ve got $13 million and dreams of being the first commercial deep space company.
Here’s a pretty incredible view of the asteroid Bennu ejecting material from its surface, captured by the OSIRIS-REx mission in 2019. Scientists think the chunks of asteroid could be dislodged when Bennu’s temperature rises in the sunlight, potentially causing the asteroid to expand and crack, or turning water inside into jets of steam.
OSIRIS-REx’s will arrive near Earth to drop off its asteroid sample sometime in 2023, but NASA recently approved plans for the spacecraft to visit a new asteroid after its fly-by. The data from the sample analysis and the spacecraft’s remote sensors will be valuable to scientists trying to understand the solar system, and companies like AstroForge that want to exploit it.
Every perfume ingredient is its own little industry. And you’d be surprised how gross the sourcing in those industries can get. “These complex and surprising supply chains to me hint at the wonders of the world,” Quartz’s Aurora Alemendral says on this week’s episode of the Quartz Obsession podcast.
Spies pay for sky snaps. Big news for private Earth observation companies: The National Reconnaissance Organization chose Maxar, Planet, and BlackSky for multi-billion dollar data contracts over the next decade. Each company’s stock bounced on the news of the long-term revenue stream.
A distinctly Musky odor. Last week’s Insider report that Elon Musk sexually harassed a SpaceX flight attendant (and president Gwynne Shotwell’s defense of how the incident was handled) has colored this week’s SpaceX news, particularly efforts to raise $1.7 billion in new capital. As Bloomberg’s Max Chafkin points out, Musk created a lot more value when he was focused on tech and not trolling.
Special delivery. A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched 59 spacecraft in the company’s Transporter-5 mission yesterday. The fifth rideshare flight from SpaceX includes the new Momentus orbital transfer vehicle developed since founder Mikhail Kokorich departed; “spacebees” built by satellite IOT pioneer Swarm, now owned by SpaceX; and what might be the last set of spacecraft launched on a SpaceX rocket by Spaceflight, the small satellite launch broker.
To the Moon! Rocket Lab is preparing to launch NASA’s Capstone mission to the Moon during a launch window that opens June 6. The spacecraft, built by Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems, will fly in a special orbit to ensure its suitability for the space station NASA is launching to support future Artemis astronauts.
Free the data, free your mind. Joe Morrison, an executive at Umbra, the remote-sensing company, makes a provocative argument that private satellite firms should make their archival data freely accessible in order to expand their products’ market and efficacy.
This was issue 134 of our newsletter. Hope your week is out of this world! Please send your views on the feasibility of space mining, details of SpaceX’s fundraising, tips, and informed opinions to firstname.lastname@example.org.