Space is a treasure chest waiting to be plundered. Asteroids made of iron, nickel, cobalt, and even precious metals like gold and platinum constantly zoom around our solar system—and often get tantalizingly close to Earth. In fact, a 2021 study published in The Planetary Science Journal found that there could be as much as $11.65 trillion worth of metal-rich near-Earth asteroids. Beyond our backyard, in the growing expanse of the universe, there’s a seemingly infinite amount of money just floating out in the vast cosmos that’s ripe for the taking.
If only it were so easy to snatch it up. In the past, we’ve seen the rise and fall of asteroid mining startups like Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries. These are companies that were founded in the 2010s and were funded to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. They had sky-high ambitions to extract precious resources from space rocks for use on Earth, and also to fuel rockets for future interplanetary explorations. They were buoyed in 2015 when Congress passed the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, which gave companies all rights to any materials they extracted from space rocks and helped fuel even more interest and investments in these companies.
But, in the end, these dreams crashed down to terra firma once venture capitalists—anxious to turn a profit on their investments—stopped funding them. Planetary Resources failed to close a round of funding in 2018 and was eventually acquired by a blockchain company, which has yet to do anything with these space technology assets. Deep Space Industries was acquired by a separate aerospace venture dubbed Bradford Space that has likewise failed to do anything useful with the company’s intellectual property.
“This is really, really fucking hard.”
— Matt Gialich, AstroForge
Of course, that was years ago. The landscape for the aerospace industry is vastly different than what it was even in 2018. Not only has technology advanced to the point where flying to and returning from an asteroid is now at least somewhat feasible, but launching yourself into low- or near-Earth orbit is as simple as booking a ride on a rocket that’s already on its way into space.
“Since the first wave of companies back in 2012, launch costs have dropped and it’s a lot easier to get a cheap rideshare on a [SpaceX] Falcon 9 [rocket],” Kevin Cannon, professor of space resources and geology at the Colorado School of Mines, told The Daily Beast. “Other technologies have improved and raising capital for these kinds of ventures is a bit easier.”
Due to this, asteroid mining companies—and investor interest—are starting to pick up steam once more. But questions around their viability and ability to actually execute on their space plundering goals still remain. Some of the challenges that faced PR and DSI are still there. After all, this isn’t just rocket science—it’s something much more difficult.
“This is really, really fucking hard,” Matt Gialich, co-founder and CEO of asteroid mining company AstroForge, told The Daily Beast. “We’ve only done this as government agencies before. We need to take what governments have done and make it into a commercial company. That’s very tricky.”
AstroForge is one of the newest space rock mining companies to emerge in the wake of PR and DSI’s 2018 collapses. In 2022, AstroForge was able to secure $13 million in seed funding, suggesting investors are feeling a renewed confidence in these ventures.
The company announced on Jan. 24 that it would launch two missions in 2023: The first is in April and will take place aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in order to demonstrate their metal refining technology in zero gravity. The second is an October launch with a SpaceX lunar rideshare that’ll take them to deep space in order to observe their target asteroid. Gialich said that each mission is bringing them closer to the eventual goal of bringing their “first refined load of platinum back on Earth by the end of this decade.”
“By 2030,” Gialich added, “we should be in business making who knows how much money.”
If anyone knows how difficult asteroid mining is, it’s Chris Lewicki. He’s previously worked with NASA to send exploration rovers like Spirit and Opportunity to Mars, and was even the surface mission manager for the Phoenix Mars Lander. But perhaps the best reason he has a more reliable perspective on the challenges of asteroid mining is due to the fact that he was also the former president and co-founder of Planetary Resources before it was shuttered in 2018.
The way he tells it, one of the biggest hurdles that any asteroid mining company faces isn’t necessarily technological or scientific—it’s financial.
“Planetary Resources, in many ways, failed because we were not able to raise the required amount of money to get to that next step,” Lewicki told The Daily Beast. “Part of the reason why we weren’t able to raise the amount of money was because it wasn’t clear how the business was going to make money.”
Nearly every company that’s entering this extremely nascent industry is a startup, reliant on funding from outside investors. While venture capitalists with deep pockets might be willing to dole out millions for a stake in an asteroid mining company initially, even the most gung ho of them, like PR, will run out of interest eventually if there’s no profit coming in.
Asteroid mining takes time. Even with SpaceX rideshares and new advanced telescopes to help you prospect the most platinum-rich asteroid, you still need to develop a tech stack capable of going out to the asteroid, mining it, refining the metal, and then bringing it back.The missions that make up the backbone of the business plan have to be thought out not on the scale of years, but decades.
So, some asteroid mining ventures try to find other ways to generate income in the meantime. Initially, PR planned to sell satellites capable of surveying for near-Earth asteroids and also analyzing the Earth itself. While they were able to successfully launch two test satellites into orbit, they failed to close a round of funding shortly after the second launch—resulting in layoffs and its eventual acquisition.
“Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources taught us some important lessons,” Joel Sercel, the co-founder and CEO of asteroid mining company Trans Astronautica, told The Daily Beast. “That is, it’s less important to build spacecraft to get into space quickly, and more important to really understand the business model and the tech stack, and have the ability to deliver on industrial scale processes.”
Sercel said that TransAstra, which was founded in 2015, is focused on “playing the long game on asteroid mining.” To that end, the company offers a variety of services like their rideshare compatible vehicle dubbed Worker Bee that can ferry satellites into low-Earth orbit. They also have proprietary propulsion technology, as well as the Sutter Telescope System (named after the birthplace of the California Gold Rush) that allows users to find and track new asteroids for minerals. All told, their business model helps them maintain stability while working on their long term goal of mining asteroids.
Sercel is quick to say that he’s completely supportive of AstroForge and other up-and-coming asteroid mining ventures. In his mind, the more talented engineers and entrepreneurs who are working on solving these big unwieldy problems, the better it is for the industry and society as a whole.
However, he also explained that sometimes the urge to move fast results in misplaced priorities.
“We try to avoid the obsession some people in the space industry have with getting into space quickly,” Sercel said. “We’ve seen any number of new startup companies get into space quickly, and then go out of business. So it’s a cool demonstration. But it really doesn’t solve the fundamental problems.”
AstroForge, on the other hand, seems very focused on one goal: getting space metal. It is working on the metal refining tech that is supposed to be demoed in orbit in April.
“Our mission as a company is to go mine asteroids for platinum group metals,” Gialich said. “There’s no other mission of the company. We have no off-ramps. That is all we are trying to do.” And the company is buoyed by the fact that “the access to space is just so much cheaper than it ever was for anybody else. That gives us a huge advantage going forward.”
Yet it’s still unclear whether there is enough of a market for space metals now to allow AstroForge to find success quickly enough—and if there isn’t, their future might come crashing back down much sooner than expected.
Despite the financial hurdles, AstroForge is dead set on mining platinum from space and bringing it back to Earth before the decade is over. That’s an extremely ambitious goal—and according to most space mining experts, a tad overly ambitious.
“I think it’ll take longer than the next few years for them to complete the whole thing, but what they’re planning is good and the plan gets them moving,” Chris Dreyer, the director of engineering in the Center for Space Resources at the Colorado School of Mines, told The Daily Beast. “I think because Astra Forge is gonna start flying missions very soon, you’ll start seeing some results that build some confidence and hopefully be successful with those individual missions that develop some of their capabilities they need to do the complete mining process.”
“[What] they’re trying to pull off is very difficult,” Cannon added. “Deep space missions are usually run by huge teams of NASA and aerospace veterans so the chance of failure at first is quite high.”
Lewicki was even more blunt about his predictions for AstroForge’s long-term success. “Theoretically, I guess it could happen. But realistically, no, I don’t think so,” he said. However, he added that it “might be possible” to bring back a commercially small sample of platinum from an asteroid—but it wouldn’t be enough to generate a meaningful revenue stream by any means.
Investors might not want to wait too long for results either. Ellen Chang, vice president of ventures at innovation and space consultancy BMNT, told The Daily Beast in an email that “the asteroid mining market is a ways out, likely 10+ years, so only certain investors- those who may have strategic needs- would be interested.”
“They would value any company building an astroid mining company also making revenues from projects servicing needs today,” Chang explained. “In my view, the traditional venture capitalist would not be interested because their fund lifecycle is too short.”
Regardless if they’re right or not they’ll actually succeed, Sercell said that it’s important to want AstroForge’s team to succeed. Rising tides raise all ships. If an asteroid mining company finally brings back a payload of refined platinum, gold, or whatever else, it proves that it’s possible.
The consequences would be huge—similar to the effect SpaceX had when it proved out the reusability of its first stage Falcon 9 booster. All of a sudden, we’ll be able to mine for resources in space instead of ravaging the Earth for them. Deep space exploration and colonization becomes a whole lot closer to becoming a reality if we’re able to get resources from asteroids. Human population could grow exponentially and spread through the cosmos with less worry about depleting vital resources. It would change the future of humanity as we know it.
“The asteroids enable us to build worlds in space to support a population with a thousand Einsteins—and that’s pretty cool,” Sercel said. “It’s the ultimate sustainable solution for humanity.”
The Daily Beast