Five hundred years ago, European explorers embarked on long and dangerous voyages across uncharted seas in a quest to find new trade routes to east Asia — the source of valuable spices, such as pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves.
This year, modern-day explorers will be targeting deep-space asteroids as a potentially limitless resource of rare precious metals, such as platinum, gold, iridium and palladium.
After securing $13 million in seed funding last April, AstroForge is about to launch two missions that will assess the viability of mining metal-rich asteroids and processing the material in space.
This April, the Huntington Beach, CA, company will be testing its technique for refining and extracting precious metals from "asteroid-like material" in a zero-gravity environment. The samples will be sent into space aboard SpaceX’s Transporter-7 rideshare.
In October, a second mission will be heading to deep space to collect high-resolution images of the surface of an asteroid that AstroForge expects to mine at a future date. That asteroid is 22 million miles from Earth — but relatively nearby in terms of space travel.
If the first two missions are successful, the company has queued up two additional missions — one to land on the asteroid and the next to refine material and bring it back to Earth.
AstroForge CEO Matt Gialich told techcrunch.com that his company is working with advisors from universities, NASA and the research nonprofit Planetary Science Institute to help identify the most promising asteroids to exploit.
“With a finite supply of precious metals on Earth, we have no other choice than to look to deep space to source cost-effective and sustainable materials,” Gialich said in a statement.
Instead of trying to explore the vast number of asteroids in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, the AstroForge team will be looking for asteroids closer to Earth. The closest target asteroid would require a journey of only 11 months.
Deep-space mining has the potential to reap trillions of dollars worth of precious metals, vital resources that are critical to various industries, including jewelry. Space mining is also positioned as a way to preserve Earth's declining resources and protect its environment.
According to gizmodo.com, AstroForge will be targeting asteroids ranging in width from 20 feet to 1,500 feet. Instead of landing on the asteroids, it plans to blast them from a distance and then collect the smaller pieces for processing.
The US government has already made legal preparations for the eventuality of space mining. The SPACE Act, which became law in 2015, includes provisions for private companies to extract resources from asteroids with limited government interference. Although the law does not allow for companies to claim, say, an asteroid, for their own, miners may keep anything they obtain from their exploration and mining.
Credit: Psyche illustration by NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU.