Jose Acain (left) and Matt Gialich (right) were co-founders of Astroforge.
California-based Astroforge runs a lean operation with a high-risk, high-reward mission to extract precious metals.
Early next year, a SpaceX rocket will launch a drill to the lunar surface as part of its Artemis program. And that rocket will carry a smaller spacecraft with it to a much more distant target: an asteroid, which will take about nine months to reach. This ship, named Brokkr-2, is being built by California-based company Astroforge as part of its journey to commercialize mining in space.
Last month, the company successfully tested the rockets that will allow the spacecraft to reach the distant object. This is a crucial final step before the spacecraft is integrated into the rocket that will launch it next year. If successful, it would be the first time that a private company has sent a mission into space beyond the Earth and Moon.
This test was the last major milestone the company needed to reach before sending its ship off the planet, said Matt Gialich, co-founder and CEO of Astroforge Forbes. “The fact that this went smoothly and we didn’t show you a picture of a fireball means we got through that gate. We’re in a really good position to attempt the world’s first commercial space mission.”
Asteroid mining sounds like science fiction, but it has a very practical force: As the world moves away from fossil fuels and relies even more on electricity, it will need more metals. But Earth’s resources are limited and many of the best locations for mining important metals are already being developed. An analysis was published on Monday Proceedings of the National Academy of Science found that prices for the metals needed for batteries and renewable energy infrastructure could rise, “potentially delaying the transition to clean energy.” The analysis further suggests that demand for metals will force mining companies to dig in places where such metals are not as readily available, at a significant economic and environmental cost.
However, many of the asteroids in our solar system are packed with metals needed for future industries, such as cobalt, nickel and platinum group metals. Additionally, these metals occur in higher concentrations than on Earth, meaning smaller amounts of material can be mined to produce more metals. The analysis suggests that over time it would be possible to largely abandon mining on Earth and instead rely on space resources to meet the planet’s needs. This is exactly the market Astroforge wants to tap into.
But it’s not the first company to try its hand at space mining. In the early 2010s, two major projects – Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources – launched to much fanfare, attracting a combined $60 million in venture capital from investment firms such as Bryan Johnson’s OS Fund. But both companies ultimately closed their doors before the decade was out. Gailich and Acain are very aware of this history and say they have had many conversations with former employees of these two companies to learn from their experiences. However, a key difference between then and now is the fact that SpaceX and other companies have radically reduced the cost of doing business in space. One example co-founder Jose Acain gives is that a decade ago, a space mission would have required reserving a rocket, which would have cost hundreds of millions. Today, however, smaller spacecraft routinely share space with larger spacecraft on a rocket, dramatically reducing associated costs. The company estimates that the total cost of its Brokkr-2 mission will be less than $10 million.
With just $13 million in seed capital, Astroforge is definitely putting the cost issue to the test. However, another advantage of the current market is the fact that, unlike ten years ago, there is now a thriving ecosystem of space companies offering off-the-shelf components, meaning the company does not have to develop its systems from scratch. Astroforge already launched a spacecraft earlier this year that is currently in orbit testing the company’s mineral refining technology.
“It’s certainly not out of the question” that lower launch costs could make a big difference to Astroforge’s chances of success, said space industry analyst Chris Quilty Forbes in an email. While he didn’t study the company’s specific economic model, he said the fact that launch costs have been “reduced by an order of magnitude” opens up a “whole universe” of business opportunities in space.
Both Gialich, 37, and his co-founder Jose Acain, 39, have a background in aerospace engineering. Acain interned at NASA’s Ames Research Center before spending four years at SpaceX, where he worked on both the Falcon 9 rocket and the Dragon spacecraft, and Gialich led teams developing spacecraft software at Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit developed. But it was only after they both left the space industry that they met while working together at the e-scooter company Bird. During their tenure, Gialich says, both were recruited to work on missions for NASA at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The two said that while the prospect of space missions was exciting, the idea of long, multi-year projects involving lengthy bureaucratic hassles was not. Instead, they decided to start Astroforge.
For its first space mission, the company has targeted an asteroid that it believes has a higher concentration of metals than Earth, called an M-type asteroid. However, the first mission won’t involve actually mining anything – instead, the spacecraft will fly past it and use its cameras to explore its craters and other geological features to confirm that this is the case. This will be the first time a crewed spacecraft has closely examined such an asteroid – NASA’s Psyche mission, which launched Friday, is on its way to explore another M-type asteroid, but it won’t reach its destination until 2029 to reach. Astroforge hopes that the data collected as part of the Brokkr-2 mission can then be used to plan future mining missions.
If this mission is successful, the company will develop additional missions to characterize asteroids, advance its mining technologies, and plan return missions to Earth. Ultimately, the company’s goal is to mine one to two tons worth of material and return it to Earth to sell on spot markets. The hope is that this will ultimately be cheaper than mining on Earth; For metals like platinum, the company believes it can support mining missions with margins of over 80%. (Platinum currently trades for about $25 million a ton.) Every step of the way is a gamble, Astroforge’s founders admit, but they hope it can pay off.
“We’re an all-or-nothing company,” Gailich said. “All of our chips are in the middle of the table every six months. That’s what makes it fun and exciting for us, and that’s how we’ll continue to run the company until we either mine an asteroid or go bankrupt.”
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Source : www.forbes.com