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The Asteroid-Mining Renaissance Has Arrived

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This article was originally published by Undark Magazine.

In April 2023, a satellite the size of a microwave launched into space. Its goal: to get ready to mine asteroids. Although the mission, backed by a company called AstroForge, ran into problems, it’s part of a new wave of activity by would-be asteroid miners hoping to cash in on cosmic resources.

Potential applications of space-mined material abound: Asteroids contain metals such as platinum and cobalt, which are used in electronics and electric-vehicle batteries, respectively. Although plenty of these materials exist on Earth, they can be more concentrated on asteroids than on mountainsides, making them easier to scrape out. And scraping in space, advocates say, could cut down on the damaging impacts of mining on this planet. Space-resource advocates also want to explore the potential of other substances. What if, say, space ice could be used for spacecraft and rocket propellant? Or space dirt could be used for astronaut-housing structures and radiation shielding?

Previous companies have rocketed toward similar goals before, but they went bust about half a decade ago. In the years since that first cohort left the stage, though, “the field has exploded in interest,” says Angel Abbud-Madrid, the director of the Center for Space Resources at the Colorado School of Mines.

A lot of the attention has focused on the moon, because nations plan to set up outposts there and will need supplies. NASA, for instance, has ambitions to build an astronaut base camp over the next decade. China, meanwhile, hopes to found an international lunar research station.

Still, the pull of space rocks remains powerful, and the new crop of companies remains hopeful. The economic picture has improved with the cost of rocket launches decreasing, as has the regulatory environment, given that countries are creating laws specifically allowing space mining. But only time will tell if this decade’s prospectors will cash in where others have drilled into the red, or if they’ll be buried by their business plan.

An asteroid-mining company needs one major ingredient to get started: optimism. A hope that it could start a new industry, one apart from this world. “Not a lot of humans are built to work like that,” says Matt Gialich, a co-founder and the CEO of AstroForge. Since the company’s April 2023 demo mission, it has yet to come close to mining anything.

What he and colleagues hope to extract, though, are platinum-group metals, some of which are used in devices such as catalytic converters, which reduce exhaust emissions. Substances such as platinum and iridium, meanwhile, are used in electronics. There are also opportunities in green technology, and new pushes to produce platinum-based batteries with better storage that could end up in electric vehicles and energy-storage systems.

To further the company’s goals, AstroForge’s initial mission was loaded with simulated asteroid material and a refinery system designed to extract platinum from the simulant, to show that metal processing could happen in space.

Things didn’t go exactly as planned. After the small craft got into orbit, it was hard to identify and communicate with the dozens of other newly launched satellites. The solar panels, which provide the spacecraft with power, wouldn’t deploy at first. And the satellite was initially beset with a wobble that prevented communication. The company has not been able to do the simulated extraction.

AstroForge will soon embark on a second mission, with a different goal: to slingshot to an asteroid and take a picture—a surveying project that may help the company understand which valuable materials exist on a particular asteroid.

Another company, called TransAstra, is selling a telescope and software designed to detect objects such as asteroids moving through the sky; the Chinese corporation Origin Space has an asteroid-observing satellite in orbit around Earth, and is testing out its mining-relevant technology there. Meanwhile, the Colorado company Karman+ plans to go straight to an asteroid in 2026 and try out excavation equipment.

To achieve the ultimate goal of pulling metals from space rocks, TransAstra, Karman+, and AstroForge have received a combined tens of millions of dollars in venture-capital funding.

Another company with similar aims, simply called Asteroid Mining Corporation, doesn’t want to rely much on outside investment in the long term. Such reliance, in fact, helped sink earlier companies. Instead, its founder and CEO, Mitch Hunter-Scullion, is focusing his company’s early efforts on terrestrial applications that pay up immediately so he can fund future work in the broader universe. In 2021, the company partnered with Tohoku University Space Robotics Laboratory, based in Japan, to develop space robots.

Together, they have built a six-legged robot called the Space Capable Asteroid Robotic Explorer, or SCAR-E. Designed to operate in microgravity, it can crawl around a rugged surface and record data on, and take samples of, what’s there. In 2026, the company plans to do a demonstration mission analyzing soil on the moon.

For now, though, SCAR-E will stay on Earth and inspect ship hulls. According to one market-research platform, hull inspections make up a nearly $13-billion market globally—as compared with the asteroid-mining market, currently valued at $0, because no one has yet mined an asteroid.

Such grounded work may give the company a revenue stream before, and during, its time in space. “I think every asteroid-mining company has this realization that money runs out, investors get tired, and you have to do something,” Hunter-Scullion says.

“My opinion is that, unless you’ve built something which makes sense on Earth,” he adds, “you’re never going to be able to mine an asteroid.”

Ian Lange sees sideways applications such as ship inspections as the “gin” of space mining: Lots of distilleries want to make whiskey. But making whiskey requires years of maturing alcohol in a cask. “You can make gin right now,” says Lange, an economist at the Colorado School of Mines. The gin can float a company until its whiskey is ripe.

AstroForge is betting that asteroid mining will happen soon enough that it doesn’t need gin.

Some of the economics are, in fact, better than they were in the 2010s. Rockets are cheaper than when the prior companies started (and then stopped), for instance. But other considerations are more complicated. For one, Lange says, terrestrial resources are abundant. “It’s not that we don’t have lithium around,” he says, as an example. “The problem is that for a number of reasons, we’re not allowing ourselves to take them out of the ground.” Often, those reasons involve environmental concerns.

For some, extracting materials from space offers a way to reduce the burden on Earth’s resources. That consideration is especially prevalent when it comes to the extraction required for clean-energy technologies, such as hydrogen-fuel production, which uses iridium, and hydrogen-fuel-cell cars, which require platinum. Certain metals—such as nickel, cobalt, and iron—are also more concentrated in asteroids because, unlike Earth’s richest deposits, they haven’t been tapped yet.

But space mining isn’t without its own environmental impacts: Rocket launches, for instance, contribute greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, something Lange’s research notes. Extraction from space rocks would likely generate waste and debris, which would float out into the vacuum of space.

To combat such concerns, researchers suggested in 2019 that much of the solar system should be set aside as “wilderness,” like protected land on Earth. Allowing exploitation such as mining on only one-eighth of cosmic resources, they wrote, could prevent the kinds of effects that overzealous extraction has wrought at home. In 2021, researchers at the University of New South Wales, in Australia, proposed an environmental-impact framework to assess how damaging a given space-mining project would be, through factors such as how much dust it would stir up.

But the kind of public outcry that accompanies endeavors such as deep-sea mining isn’t likely to happen for asteroids: A 2022 study found that the public is largely in favor of asteroid mining, an opinion that held regardless of people’s preconceived ideas about ecological fragility or their political ideology.

“People were much more supportive of mining asteroids than other forms of frontier mining like mining the ocean floor, mining Antarctica, and mining the Alaskan tundra,” Matthew Hornsey, the lead author of the paper and a professor at the University of Queensland, in Australia, wrote in an email. “They didn’t raise the same ethical objections that they did to other forms of mining, and they reported little anxiety about it.” Even those who typically would object to mining on environmental grounds felt that way, Hornsey says, likely because they saw the trade-off: Scar the Earth or scrape an asteroid.

The same, though, was not true of the moon, where respondents generally disapproved of mining more—sometimes more than they opposed mining in ecologically sensitive areas of Earth. “The moon is visible, beautiful, and associated with purity and spirituality,” Hornsey wrote. “I can see why people might see the need to preserve the sanctity of the moon more so than asteroids.”

Regardless of the environmental pros and cons, making the leap to cosmic extraction will likely require further constraints on Earth—for example, stricter environmental regulations—that make space mining more appealing than digging another hole in the ground at home.

Still, Lange says, “it’s not clear that we will be able to bring costs down to match terrestrial minerals.” The new optimists are simply willing to make that bet.

A few other things have changed since the 2010s: For one, would-be asteroid miners have more data. Recent NASA missions have revealed more about asteroids’ composition and structure.

The regulatory landscape for space mining has also shifted in recent years, says Melissa de Zwart, a professor at the University of Adelaide, in Australia, who specializes in space law. Lack of existing regulation, she says, is part of why the first crop of companies failed. There wasn’t a legal framework that explicitly stated that space mining was allowed.

Today, Japan, the United Arab Emirates, Luxembourg, and the United States all have legislation enshrining their companies’ and country’s rights to mine space material. The U.S. has also established the Artemis Accords, a set of best practices for behavior on the moon. Other nations have signed on to these principles, which include ensuring that lunar digs align with the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, the major international law governing space exploration (even though it was enacted long before space mining was on the practical horizon).

The Outer Space Treaty doesn’t explicitly prohibit space mining—but it establishes basic rules: The “U.S. couldn’t go to the moon, put the U.S. flag on there, and say, ‘It belongs to us,’ and start mining,” de Zwart says. But the country could extract material—such as ice and metallic rocks—from the moon, or an asteroid, and then own that material. The treaty also says that nations are responsible for what their private companies do, and their activities must benefit humanity.

But that framework leaves a lot of gaps—for example, how exactly mining can be done responsibly. And there is talk toward that more logistical end: The Hague International Space Resources Governance Working Group has put together starting points for developing an international how-to framework, and the United Nations has a working group dedicated to the cause.

That framework is likely to be tested, with the first proverbial pickax strike, not on asteroids but on the moon, because that’s where humans are set to take their next small steps. “The moment you start talking sustained presence, you’re going to have to start looking at resources,” Abbud-Madrid says.

Lunar surveying is already happening, and as of December 2020, NASA has contracts with four companies: Their task is to gather a small amount of material from the lunar surface, as a proof of concept to show that extraction is possible.

NASA doesn’t have a similar demonstration for mining asteroids. But the space-rock seekers nevertheless continue their quest for treasure, even though its potential payoff is delayed. They believe that Earth needs, and will pay handily for, what space has to offer.

At least, that’s the optimistic take. “This has to happen,” Gialich, the AstroForge CEO, says. “And I just hope that we’re the first.”

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