SPACE AGE MANUFACTURING
Space mining visionaries play long game
by K. Warner / April 26, 2023
“Slated for launch in October, NASA and JPL’s Psyche mission will send an exploratory spacecraft to 16 Psyche, a metal-rich asteroid in the belt between Mars and Jupiter. Like flying cars and jet packs, space travel, colonization and resource mining are all lagging behind the imaginations of Hollywood, scientists, and billionaire CEOs. This is partly because NASA and its Jet Propulsion Laboratory (and any other nation’s government-supported agencies) have a problem – the project ambitions of the U.S. Congress-funded space agency is hedged by the variable length of a presidential term and the resulting appointments. Therefore, it is up to the private sector to pick up the slack. If we want to see more rocket launches, satellites and space stations through our telescopes, or Moon and Mars destinations in our vacation packages, then tech and aerospace corporations and startups must team up with venture capitalists, shareholders and any other organization with return-on-investment imperatives to find a way to cash in on meteors and moon rocks. They’re also going to need a lot of patience – the kind of long-term thinking cultivated by a mining industry that regularly must slog through decades of paperwork and red tape to get a project off the ground and years of operations to cover startup costs before making a profit, all the while setting aside enough cash to clean up after themselves once the resource is tapped out.
The motherlode of asteroids is a shiny bauble between Mars and Jupiter called 16 Psyche, worth an estimated $10,000 quadrillion. Translated into terra firma terms, it’s nearly 140 miles across, the equivalent of the distance between Los Angeles and San Diego. And it is worth much more than our entire combined global economy. Two heavily backed companies, Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries, attempted to cash in on the predicted payoff. Both ran out of funding and were bought up and restructured. In hindsight, the immense initial outlay of investment had to go to reinventing the wheel – or, in this case, the spaceship – and building nearly every element from scratch. Planetary Resources was acquired by blockchain tech company ConsenSys in 2018, which subsequently auctioned off its assets and made all its research available to the public domain. Deep Space was acquired by Bradford Space in 2019 and refocused on engineering mini satellites and green propulsion instead. Unfortunately, a lot of startups in the field blaze onto the scene and then get absorbed or retasked by companies with less interest in space.
Nothing is ever wasted – much of space exploration and its problems have resulted in tech breakthroughs we now can’t live without like solar cells, camera phones, memory foam, LEDs, and the precursor to the laptop computer. Though prospecting interests in the priceless asteroid have petered out for now, NASA is still building its own mission to 16 Psyche, to confirm its unusual metallic nature, determine if it truly is the remnant of a rare planetary core and then study it to better understand the interior of our own. In 2020 NASA collected a sample from another asteroid in the neighborhood, called Bennu, which is still on its way home and expected to arrive in September. This is the final leg of NASA’S OSIRIS-REx mission, seven years and $1 billion in the making, all to analyze a handful of space gravel. Here we are in 2023, and humanity still has yet to commercially mine a single asteroid. But that hasn’t phased the latest wave of space miners and their backers.
Unless the resource is in high demand and low supply on Earth, there’s little to be gained by importing anything from outer space all the way back home. The transportation costs alone would be prohibitive, and the higher price tag wouldn’t be able to compete with terrestrial markets. “When analysts made their predictions, they were looking at the amount of the precious metals and materials in the asteroids, and they didn’t look at the economies of the industries,” said Gabor Szecsi, an attorney at Haynes and Boone who has worked several years with the European Space Agency and now focuses on advising space startups. Though precious metals are what usually come to mind, the counter-intuitive truth is that scarcity of various materials in any given situation is a smarter focus for the would-be space miner. And water is a resource that will be valuable to future space explorers.
In addition to the obvious requirements for humans, if you split water into liquid hydrogen and oxygen, you have rocket fuel. This comes in handy when stopping by the Moon or a similar lower-gravity body to refuel – you can pack less fuel at takeoff, making your spacecraft significantly lighter and cheaper to launch. With a couple floating fuel stations along the way, interplanetary missions can go farther and focus on carrying scientific payloads instead of fuel. Lunar ice and regolith are a wealth of vital elements and minerals needed in order to cut down on supplies for self-sustaining rockets, permanent structures and involved missions that would otherwise be sent at exorbitant costs into space from Earth. Helium, specifically Helium-3, is not readily available on Earth but has several vital applications in safer nuclear fusion, medicine and cryogenics. It also may be more prolific on the Moon through exposure to solar winds, unhindered by a protective magnetosphere like Earth’s.
Two California startups, TransAstra and AstroForge, are again tackling the unique challenges of making space mining a reality. TransAstra’s core project is the Honey Bee system, vehicles that use a process involving capturing an asteroid in an enclosure and using solar reflectors to heat up the material, driving volatiles out of the minerals and storing them in an ice trap. Eventually, the company plans to harvest nearly every element on the periodic table. TransAstra is currently funded by grants and contracts from NASA and millions in venture capital, while it has yet to actually operate any of its technology in space – this is all part of a bigger plan. The company moonlights as an intellectual property developer, satisfying existing market needs in the field with solutions like repurposing satellites to support orbital debris traffic management and asteroid prospecting and designing better orbital logistics-the process of delivering satellites to their final orbital destinations from their rocket drop-offs. Each new contract is designed to take another step in developing and testing various tech solutions for the TransAstra beehive without breaking a sweat. “Our plan is to be revenue positive at every step along the way while we’re building the company and using these near-term businesses to mature the technology. And then as you do that, you have all the pieces in place to go out and start asteroid mining,” said TransAstra President and CEO Joe Sercel.
Founded in 2022 by two former SpaceX and Virgin Galactic engineers, AstroForge’s approach is on rare metals, specifically the high-demand platinum group elements, used in everyday products from cell phones and catalytic converters to cancer drugs. Their process is three stages – vaporization of raw material, ionization of the resulting particles, and sorting the spoils. “The key technology that we’re developing is our ore processing system,” said Jose Acain, co-founder and CTO of AstroForge. “So that system consists of the excavation subsystem that moves the material from the asteroid into the spacecraft. And then there’s the refinery piece that extracts the valuable material and removes all the unnecessary material that we can’t actually sell on Earth.” To keep costs down, AstroForge will utilize off-the-shelf satellites and SpaceX rockets for transporting payloads. The company has already raised $23 million in venture capital funding and will be conducting multiple test missions before launching its first official mining mission targeting near-earth asteroids in 2025, with the average mission taking two years. “The most challenging aspect of asteroid mining is really the asteroid itself. We have a lot of evidence and observations and scientific data, but we don’t actually have a lot of truth knowledge, meaning there’s only been a handful of missions that have actually gone to the asteroid,” according to Acain. “So, you can design a perfect system, you can control all of these things; 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.”
For now, commercial space mining is still in its speculative stage. However, NASA’s upcoming Artemis II mission is headed to the Moon in November 2024, the first crewed flight to the Moon since the 1972 Apollo 17 mission. Though this trip is just a flyby, the project’s overall intent is to research utilizing the Moon’s natural resources, called in-situ resource utilization. NASA plans to establish sustainable infrastructure that will allow more extensive exploration and study of the Moon and prep for the next wave of human exploration of Mars. On Artemis II, astronaut Jeremy Hansen will make history as the first Canadian to go on a mission around the Moon. “The Artemis III mission will go back to the surface of the moon, but post Artemis III, there is a plan to build up, incrementally, an infrastructure to support longer duration missions,” explained Mathieu Giguere, a planning analyst with the Canadian Space Agency. “ISRU is really expected to use local resources to extend those missions and it also will reduce the cost of the missions by reducing the need to resupply from Earth.” Because of Canada’s mining and mineral extraction expertise, it is hoped that the country will be an important player in future lunar mining, both in adapting existing mining techniques and developing new ones. “The Canadian mining sector has proven expertise in remote areas, harsh environments, and ultra-deep mining, and the ISRU spans across a whole value chain: prospecting, assessing, extracting, refining, and processing the resources,” Giguere noted. Scientists are focused on learning how to extract the Moon’s regolith, which is very fine dust, and water-ice, traces of which are found in the regolith as well as in larger frozen pools.
Mining the ice can produce oxygen and hydrogen for fuel and air resupply, which would open the possibilities for extended missions. “I always tend to put ‘mining’ in quotes because I think it’s very unlikely that we’re actually going to use the kinds of mining techniques that I’m familiar with on the Moon,” said Doug Morrison, CEO of the Centre for Excellence in Mining Innovation, based in Canada (CEMI). “We will certainly be using extractive efforts, but the kind of equipment that we use on Earth today is almost certainly not going to be what we use on the moon.” Dale Boucher, who’s been working in the space technology field for more than 20 years via his company, Deltion Innovations, says, “[W]e do need to think about the basic principles of the mining aspect-the geotechnical and geochemistry-that we understand in the mining industry very well, and how do we start adapting this to work in space.” It isn’t just the mine that is being reinvented. The entire infrastructure surrounding space mining needs fresh eyes, from energy to transportation, even regulatory issues like proving due diligence. CEMI doesn’t have all the answers yet, but the research organization aims to be a resource between scientists, innovators, and anyone with solutions-based expertise to help build the necessary knowledge base. “We’re in a situation where we can’t actually dig a hole (on the Moon) right now… there are lots of things we have to do, and do very well, reliably, day in, day out, before we get to many of these more advanced issues that we know we have to get to,” Morrison said. Assiduous use of available resources is crucial in space exploration in order to eliminate the costs and risks associated with importing resources across space.
With the Moon as a nearby and particularly promising target for resource extraction, the European Space Agency (ESA), in partnership with the European Space Resources Innovation Centre (ESRIC), has opened the sustainable lunar mining question up to the entire world. Due to the expense of launching supplies from Earth, mining in-situ resources will be necessary to support Moon bases. In 2019, the ESA launched an Open Space Innovation Platform (OSIP) as a main entry point for novel solutions, both in response to specific problems and through open calls for ideas. A new campaign on OSIP is seeking out community input to identify problems, troubleshoot issues and generally accelerate in-situ resource utilization technologies. Desired ISRU solutions include life support, spacecraft refueling, energy storage, infrastructure construction and off-world manufacturing. On top of driving future space exploration, crowdsourcing ideas can kick-start commercial endeavors and may just inspire the next generation of cool things we can’t live without.”