Just a few years ago, it seemed that space mining was inevitable. Analysts, tech visionaries and even renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson predicted that space mining was going to be big business.
Space mining firms like Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries, backed by the likes of Google‘s Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, cropped as much as reap the benefits of the anticipated payoff.
Fast forward to 2022, and each Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries have been acquired by firms that don’t have anything to do with space mining. Humanity has yet to commercially mine even a single asteroid. So what’s taking so long?
Space mining is a long-term undertaking and one which investors don’t necessarily have the patience to support.
“If we needed to develop a full-scale asteroid mining vehicle today, we would want a number of hundred million dollars to do this using business processes. It will be difficult to persuade the investment community that that is the proper thing to do,” says Joel Sercel, president and CEO of TransAstra Corporation.
“In today’s economics and within the economics of the near future, the following few years, it is unnecessary to go after precious metals in asteroids. And the rationale is the associated fee of attending to and from the asteroids is so high that it vastly outstrips the worth of anything that you just’d harness from the asteroids,” Sercel says.
This has not dissuaded Sercel from attempting to mine the cosmos. TransAstra will initially deal with mining asteroids for water to make rocket propellant, but would really like to eventually mine “all the pieces on the periodic table.” But Sercel says such a mission continues to be a ways off.
“By way of the timeline for mining asteroids, for us, the most important issue is funding. So it depends upon how briskly we are able to scale the business into these other ventures after which get practical engineering experience operating systems which have all of the components of an asteroid mining system. But we could possibly be launching an asteroid mission within the 5 to 7-year timeframe.”
Sercel hopes these other ventures keep it afloat until it develops its asteroid mining business. The concept is to make use of the tech that may eventually be incorporated into TransAstra’s astroid mining missions to satisfy already existing market needs, corresponding to using space tugs to deliver satellites to their exact orbits and using satellites to assist in traffic management as space gets increasingly more crowded.
AstroForge is one other company that believes space mining will change into a reality. Founded in 2022 by a former SpaceX engineer and a former Virgin Galactic engineer, AstroForge still believes there’s money to be made in mining asteroids for precious metals.
“On Earth now we have a limited amount of rare earth elements, specifically the platinum group metals. These are industrial metals which can be utilized in on a regular basis things your cellphone, cancer, drugs, catalytic converters, and we’re running out of them. And the one option to access more of those is to go off world,” says AstroForge Co-Founder and CEO Matt Gialich.
AstroForge plans to mine and refine these metals in space after which bring them back to earth to sell. To maintain costs down, AstroForge will attach its refining payload to off-the shelf satellites and launch those satellites on SpaceX rockets.
“There’s quite a number of firms that make what’s known as a satellite bus. That is what you’d typically consider as a satellite, the form of box with solar panels on it, a propulsion system being connected to it. So for us, we didn’t need to reinvent the wheel there,” Gialich says. “The previous people before us, Planetary Resources and DSI [Deep Space Industries], that they had to purchase entire vehicles. That they had to construct much, much larger and rather more expensive satellites, which required an enormous injection of capital. And I feel that was the last word downfall of each of those firms.”
The largest challenge, AstroForge says, is deciding which asteroids to focus on for mining. Prior to conducting their very own missions, all early-stage mining firms must go on is existing remark data from researchers and a hope that the asteroids they’ve chosen contain the minerals they seek.
“The technology piece you’ll be able to control, the operations pieces you’ll be able to control, but you’ll be able to’t control what the asteroid is until you get there,” says Jose Acain, AstroForge Co-Founder and CTO.
To seek out out more in regards to the challenges facing space mining firms and their plans to create space mining an actual business watch the video.