Just a couple of 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 companies like Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries, backed by the likes of Google‘s Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, cropped up to take advantage of the predicted payoff.
Fast forward to 2022, and both Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries have been acquired by companies that have nothing 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 that investors do not necessarily have the patience to support.
“If we had to develop a full-scale asteroid mining vehicle today, we would need a few hundred million dollars to do that using commercial processes. It would be difficult to convince the investment community that that’s the right thing to do,” says Joel Sercel, president and CEO of TransAstra Corporation.
“In today’s economics and in the economics of the near future, the next few years, it makes no sense to go after precious metals in asteroids. And the reason is the cost of getting to and from the asteroids is so high that it vastly outstrips the value of anything that you’d harness from the asteroids,” Sercel says.
This has not dissuaded Sercel from trying to mine the cosmos. TransAstra will initially focus on mining asteroids for water to make rocket propellant, but would like to eventually mine “everything on the periodic table.” But Sercel says such a mission is still a ways off.
“In terms of the timeline for mining asteroids, for us, the biggest issue is funding. So it depends on how fast we can scale the business into these other ventures and then get practical engineering experience operating systems that have all the components of an asteroid mining system. But we could be launching an asteroid mission in the 5 to 7-year time frame.”
Sercel hopes these other ventures keep it afloat until it develops its asteroid mining business. The idea is to use the tech that will eventually be incorporated into TransAstra’s astroid mining missions to satisfy already existing market needs, such as using space tugs to deliver satellites to their exact orbits and using satellites to aid in traffic management as space gets increasingly more crowded .
AstroForge is another company that believes space mining will become a reality. Founded in 2022 by a former SpaceX engineer and a former Virgin Galactic engineer, AstroForge still believes there is money to be made in mining asteroids for precious metals.
“On Earth we have a limited amount of rare earth elements, specifically the platinum group metals. These are industrial metals that are used in everyday things your cell phone, cancer, drugs, catalytic converters, and we’re running out of them. And the only way to access more of these is to go off world,” says AstroForge Co-Founder and CEO Matt Gialich.
AstroForge plans to mine and refine these metals in space and then bring them back to earth to sell. To keep costs down, AstroForge will attach its refining payload to off-the-shelf satellites and launch those satellites on SpaceX rockets.
“There’s quite a few companies that make what is referred to as a satellite bus. This is what you would typically think of as a satellite, the kind of box with solar panels on it, a propulsion system being connected to it. So for us , we didn’t want to reinvent the wheel there,” Gialich says. “The previous people before us, Planetary Resources and DSI [Deep Space Industries], they had to buy entire vehicles. They had to build much, much larger and much more expensive satellites, which required a huge injection of capital. And I think that was the ultimate downfall of both of those companies.”
The biggest challenge, AstroForge says, is deciding which asteroids to target for mining. Prior to conducting their own missions, all early-stage mining companies have to go on is existing observation data from researchers and a hope that the asteroids they have selected contain the minerals they seek.
“The technology piece you can control, the operations pieces you can control, but you can’t control what the asteroid is until you get there,” says Jose Acain, AstroForge Co-Founder and CTO.
To find out more about the challenges facing space mining companies and their plans to make space mining a real business watch the video.