Space mining startup CEO says asteroid resources can save the planet

Resources that are finite on our planet "are abundant in the universe," AstroForge CEO Matt Gialich told IE in an interview.
Chris Young
An artist's impression of NASA's Psyche spacecraft
An artist's impression of NASA's Psyche spacecraft

NASA / JPL-Caltech / ASU 

  • AstroForge recently launched its Brokkr-1 satellite to test its asteroid refining process in space.
  • The company is one of a number of startups that have aimed to tap into the immense potential of space mining technology in recent years.
  • AstroForge could become the first private company to operate in deep space with its Brokkr-2 mission.

AstroForge, the California-based startup that recently launched a space mining test aboard a SpaceX rideshare mission, is looking ahead toward a future in which all of the resources we need can be plucked out of the sky.

The firm recently sent its 6U CubeSat, called Brokkr-1, to space aboard SpaceX’s rideshare Transporter-7 mission, on April 15.

Brokkr-1 was built by U.K. company OrbAstro. The small spacecraft was designed to validate AstroForge's technology in space by performing its refining process on a pre-loaded asteroid-like material while in orbit.

In an interview with IE, AstroForge co-founder and CEO Matt Gialich explained that, paradoxically, "mining off-world isn’t about space." Instead, the focus is on acquiring the resources we need on Earth so that we can stop relying on dwindling reserves on our planet.

AstroForge is testing its asteroid mining technology in space

Though AstroForge's asteroid mining test spacecraft has been in space for over a month now, the company has yet to provide an update on the mission.

"We can’t disclose the status of Brokkr-1 quite yet, but we are thrilled to have had a successful launch," Gialich explained. "The goal here is to validate our technology and ensure that our refinery is able to operate in the vacuum of space."

"This mission will continue to orbit the earth until we finish all of the characterization testing we want to complete with our refining system," Gialich continued.

Space mining startup CEO says asteroid resources can save the planet
AstroForge's refinery system before it was launched aboard Brokkr-1.

Brokkr-1 will essentially vaporize and sort the pre-loaded material into its elemental components, using the same method AstroForge eventually intends to use on real space rock material. The company has successfully tested the technology in simulated space conditions in the lab, but it is currently undergoing its first test under real space conditions.

Could space mining usher in a new era of prosperity?

Experts believe that space mining could shape the future of the global economy. This is due to the fact that there are countless space rocks in our solar system that could be mined for their precious metals.

NASA, for example, will soon launch its Psyche spacecraft, which will analyze an asteroid that some have estimated to contain a staggering $700 quintillion worth of heavy metals. The launch of that mission was recently delayed, but it is now expected to take to the skies in October this year.

Space mining startup CEO says asteroid resources can save the planet
Brokkr-1 launched aboard SpaceX's Falcon 9 Transporter-7 mission.

AstroForge also has another mission in the works, Brokkr-2, which is due to launch in October aboard a Falcon 9 rocket. The Brokkr-2 spacecraft will also be built by OrbAstro using a larger 100-kilogram platform. It will launch as an additional load inside the lunar lander mission by Intuitive Machines (IM-2). The specific target of the mission is expected to be a very small asteroid with a diameter of up to 100 meters.

Brokkr-2 is designed to fly by the small near-Earth asteroid (NEO) and collect data to determine whether the space rock is metallic in composition. The mission will allow the company to test its scouting technology for future space mining operations.

"During the October mission, we will fly by a near-Earth asteroid and collect data that will allow us to anchor our model of our target asteroids."

If all goes to plan, Brokkr-2 will make AstroForge the first private space company to operate this type of mission in deep space. The company also already has a clear idea of the materials it will target in space.

"While there is certainly a possibility that we'll mine for other resources on asteroids in the future, right now we are 100 percent focused on the mining of platinum group metals (PGMs). These types of metals are a critical and yet declining resource here on Earth, used in everything from catalytic converters to medical supplies."

Standing on the shoulders of giants

To achieve its goals, AstroForge will have to prove it can operate its technology in deep space, something that no other private space company has achieved so far.

It's also not the only space mining startup to have aimed for the stars. Planetary Resources, founded in 2009, and Deep Space Industries, founded in 2013, have both since pivoted away from space mining.

Gialich emphasized, however, that any breakthrough achieved by AstroForge would owe a huge debt to the hard work of others that came before.

"AstroForge is built on the backs of the space industry," he said. "Reliable rockets, flown space hardware, even the refinery techniques have been developed and matured over the previous century. We didn't invent the computer languages we use, or the process that allows us to operate in deep space; the engineers and scientists that came before us did." 

Space mining startup CEO says asteroid resources can save the planet
AstroForge's refinery operating during a space simulation test.

"Let's be clear — this is only possible due to the amazing progress humans have made. We would be nothing without the trailblazers that came before us."

With the advent of space tourism for the world's wealthiest amid a looming global recession, there has been a marked increase in arguments against massive spending on space technologies.

AstroForge's technology seems like the antidote to those concerns. Space mining "fixes a problem we have on Earth," Gialich explained. "It is fixing an inherently destructive and pollutive process to our planet. It is about preserving our current way of living. Everything around us uses resources that are finite on the planet but are abundant in the universe."

While it's by no means a given, if AstroForge achieves its goals, it will become a key player in a new era of abundant resources for humanity transported to Earth via small spacecraft featuring in-space refineries.

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