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The startups betting on asteroid mining
The startups betting on asteroid mining

Stories of tech

The startups betting on asteroid mining

There's money in asteroid mining. But it's not easy to access it.

Written by Jonathan O'Callaghan

Illustrations by Vasya Kolotusha

Chris Lewicki was supposed to change the world. In 2012, his startup Planetary Resources announced its plan to start mining asteroids so it could bring usable resources like metals and minerals back to Earth. Among its high-profile backers were Titanic and Avatar-director James Cameron and Google co-founder Larry Page. The company hoped to pivot humanity into a space-faring species, using water and metal from asteroids as rocket fuel and building materials — and to earn trillions of dollars in the process.

Unfortunately, it was not to be. A lack of investor funding meant the company never even reached an asteroid, let alone made profits. Eventually, in 2019, Planetary Resources was sold to blockchain technology company ConsenSys, with Lewicki leading ConsenSys Space, the company’s open-source, community project to upgrade the world’s satellite-tracking capabilities. And his asteroid mining dreams were left by the wayside.

Lewicki was disappointed. “How could you not be?” he says. noting the idea was “laughable” and “zany” to many when the company started. Planetary Resources was not the only asteroid mining company to fail around that time; a competitor Deep Space Industries had also emerged in 2013, but was sold off to Bradford Space in 2019, which was also unable to keep up runway for long enough to actually visit an asteroid and prove that there was merit to the idea. “Of course it was disappointing,” says David Gump, Planetary Resources’ founding CEO. “We just ran out of money.”

The stability of PGMs gives them a wide range of uses on Earth, such as catalytic converters for cars, healthcare technologies, and jewelry.

Not everyone was surprised with the failures. For academics and astronomers in the space industry, the experience was a classic sign of overhyped startups with seemingly fanciful dreams. “Ultimately the asteroid mining bubble burst,” says Andreas Hein, a space engineer at the University of Luxembourg.

Yet, the idea has remained ever-present, for obvious reasons: there’s a lot of money in asteroid mining.


We know there are thousands of asteroids near Earth, reachable by relatively modestly sized spacecraft. They number in the hundreds of millions and range in size from basketballs to cities, with more continuously found by telescopes as we peer closely into the solar system. They come in a variety of types, from metal rich hunks of rock to tenuous conglomerations of rubble held loosely together by gravity.

Many of these asteroids are known to be rich in water, and perhaps precious metals too. Those rich in metal can contain PGMs, which comprise six metals: ruthenium, rhodium, palladium, osmium, iridium, and platinum. On Earth such metals can be difficult and expensive to mine, often requiring large amounts of power and thus causing considerable pollution, having sunk far into Earth’s crust over billions of years.

Certain asteroids, however — particularly a relatively uncommon class known as M-type asteroids that account for just 8% of all asteroids — are thought to be rich in PGMs. M-types are essentially failed cores of fledgling planets that never grew into full planets like our own. C-type asteroids, the most common asteroids, account for 75% of the population and are made mostly of clay and rock.

The stability of PGMs — mined mostly in South Africa, Russia, and North America — gives them a wide range of uses on Earth, such as catalytic converters for cars, healthcare technologies, and jewelry, making their extraction incredibly valuable. Platinum for example, was selling at $31,000 per kilogram as of March 2023. Rhodium is much higher, about $400,000 per kilogram as of March 2023.

“The metals are some of the rarest and most difficult to mine,” says Kevin Cannon, a planetary scientist at the Colorado School of Mines in the US. “If you brought enough back, you could replace or augment terrestrial mining.”

The cost of launching to space, meanwhile, is lower than it’s ever been. Put together, the opportunity seems lucrative once again.


In 2022, a new asteroid mining startup burst onto the scene. AstroForge, a California-based company, hopes to succeed where Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries couldn’t. It raised $13M in a seed round last May with investors like Y Combinator and Initialized Capital. The company plans to begin launching hardware as soon as possible, setting it apart from some of its predecessors that remained stuck in the conceptual phase.

In April 2023, the company is set to launch Brokkr-1, a small satellite built by U.K.-based space-as-a-service company OrbAstro. The goal of this mission will be to test out the key business case of AstroForge — namely, to mine platinum group metals (PGMs) from asteroids, materials that can be used in car exhausts, retinal implants, cancer drugs, and more.

The spacecraft will not actually mine an asteroid. Instead, it will remain in Earth’s orbit, where it will attempt to refine PGMs from a small sample of asteroid-like material made in a laboratory containing iron and platinum carried on board. The asteroid-like sample on Brokkr-1, a quarter-inch ball measuring a few grams in weight, will be heated until it vaporizes. Using a proprietary process, the spacecraft will then attempt to extract almost all of the platinum from the sample, which accounts for about 1% of its total composition. The test will be small, but it is a proof of concept.

“It’s what we expect to see on an asteroid,” says Matt Gialich, Astroforge’s CEO. “We will prove that we can refine asteroids in space. This is the first time a refinery will ever go up to do in-space refining.”

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The company’s ultimate goals are no less ambitious than its predecessors. “AstroForge is setting out to really fix one of the world’s biggest climate problems facing us, which we believe is mining,” says Gialich. “We plan on fixing this by going off-world to mine the resources of the universe.”

Later this year, the company hopes to conduct an even more ambitious mission. Hitching a ride on a mission to the moon, the company’s next spacecraft, Brokkr-2, will fly to an asteroid that AstroForge suspects is an M-type asteroid, although without seeing it up close yet  it is difficult to know — from afar, asteroids only appear as little points of light. The spacecraft will fly past in July 2024, snapping high-resolution images. If the asteroid is rich in PGMs, as expected, AstroForge will make plans to start sending spacecraft to start extracting some of its resources at a later date and bring them back to Earth. “We’re in the process of designing the next missions that will follow-up and land,” says Gialich.

The asteroid they are targeting is being kept under wraps. “We are not releasing the name of this asteroid, probably ever,” says Gialich. “There’s just no reason for us to give away that information to competitors and other nations that may go after this.”

Whether the asteroid will remain a secret forever is unclear, given that many amateur astronomers are likely to try and track the mission. They’ll “probably” work it out, says Gialich, “but I’m not gonna give them the answer.”


AstroForge thinks it can succeed where others have failed because the cost of access to space has never been lower. Reusable rockets from U.S. company SpaceX have dramatically reduced the price of getting vehicles into space, while a host of new rockets — large and small — currently in development by both private companies and governments around the world are continuing to increase the accessibility of space. Rockets like the Space Shuttle in the U.S. once cost some $50,000 per kilogram to launch satellites in the 1990s. Today, companies like SpaceX often rideshare missions for as low as $2,000 per 50 kilograms.

“I can now take a lot more risk with a vehicle I built,” says Gialich. Satellites can also now be bought off the shelf, from companies like OrbAstro, which is supplying the spacecraft for AstroForge. As our telescope surveys have improved, we’ve also been able to find more asteroids, raising the number of potential targets and giving companies like AstroForge potentially easier routes to extract resources and return them to Earth. “This is the right inflection point to go take another stab at this,” says Gialich.

But not everyone is convinced by the business case for PGMs. “Please note that the interviewee laughed out loud when you mentioned platinum group metals,” says Gump. “Hardware and energy in space are expensive. To my knowledge there’s no way you could process enough asteroid metal with power and mass constraints to make it profitable.”

Lewicki was similarly cautious. “I think there are resources [on asteroids] which are a lot easier to focus on,” he says, such as water, which could be resold as rocket fuel in space.

Hein, meanwhile, notes that if a large amount of platinum were to be brought back to Earth, it could crash the market, significantly lowering prices. “It’s very difficult to make any profit with asteroid mining because the prices will drop if you inject platinum into the terrestrial market," says Hein, who has previously analyzed the market potential of asteroid mining. “It’s a high risk and potentially low reward business.”

Only two spacecraft have brought samples back from an asteroid before: Japan’s Hayabusa spacecraft in 2010 and the follow-up Hayabusa2 mission in 2020. The former returned a fraction of a gram of rocky material  and the latter about five grams. NASA spacecraft OSIRIS-REx is set to bring back a larger haul in September this year, some two kilograms of rocky material. AstroForge will need to find a way to mine similar amounts of material if it is to be successful. “If they can do that, that would be a good sign they’re the real deal,” says Cannon.

Gump agrees the opportunity is ripe. He bemoans the timing of when Deep Space Industries was active, just before SpaceX’s successes with its reusable Falcon 9 rocket started to dramatically reduce launch costs by a factor of ten or more at the end of the 2010s.

That preceded a boom in the space industry, when money flowed freely to startups around 2020, with a huge number of prospective companies receiving millions of dollars in funding, many eager to replicate the runaway success of Elon Musk’s company.

“We ran out of money just a few months before everyone started investing in space,” says Gump. “If we’d been able to hold on for another six months, we probably could have raised the money we needed.”


M-type asteroids are also an alluring target. In October this year, NASA plans to launch a mission called Psyche to visit an asteroid called 16 Psyche, located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. It is the largest known M-type asteroid in the solar system, possibly the “exposed core of an early stage planet,” says Stephanie Jarmak, an astronomer at the Southwest Research Institute in Texas who will study 16 Psyche with the James Webb Space Telescope this year.

“It’s the archetypical, largest metallic asteroid, and therefore the highest interest for understanding the classification of M-type asteroids as a whole,” she says.

The Psyche spacecraft will arrive at the asteroid in 2029, potentially years after AstroForge has visited its own M-type asteroid target. Both have been beaten to the punch before though, with the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft flying past a suspected M-type asteroid called Lutetia in 2010. The results were somewhat inconclusive, however, with scientists unclear as to its true M-type nature. “It’s a bit ambiguous as to how metallic that one is,” says Andy Rivkin, an astronomer at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland.

16 Psyche, on the other hand, could be vastly different. Its PGMs could be so abundant that sheet-like metal will be visible on its surface — unlike most other asteroids which look like hunks of rock. “That’s a hope we have,” says Jarmak. “Seeing these lakes of metal on an asteroid would be pretty spectacular.”

That could make M-type asteroids incredibly alluring targets. “It’s of very high interest for space mining to identify some of these more metal-rich asteroids near Earth,” says Jarmak. “Even on smaller M-type asteroids you can really harvest a significant amount of precious metals.”


AstroForge is not the only asteroid mining company that has emerged in the past few years. A Dutch company called Karman+ has focused its sights on mining water from asteroids, which could be used to supply fuel for spacecraft while in space rather than having to return to Earth. And U.K.-based Asteroid Mining Corporation has set its sights on PGMs like AstroForge.

“We are looking at having our first satellite mission at the end of 2024,” says Mitch Hunter-Scullion, Asteroid Mining Corporation’s CEO. They hope to demonstrate their own refining process to extract resources from an asteroid. In 2026, the company hopes to send a small spider-like robot called SCAR-E to the moon, testing the technologies necessary to prospect asteroids.

Like AstroForge, Asteroid Mining Corporation believes the market potential of PGMs could be enormous. “Platinum comes from a small amount of mines which produce about 200 tons per year,” says Hunter-Scullion. “All of the platinum that’s ever been mined would fit under the Eiffel Tower. That’s not enough platinum. It’s hugely expensive and very difficult to experiment and innovate with. We need to find more of it.”

A one-kilometer wide asteroid, for example, could contain more than 100,000 tons of platinum, a market potential of some $3 trillion, says Hunter-Scullion. “It’s a scandalous amount of money,” he says. “Whoever is in control of those resources essentially controls the commodities market for decades, if not centuries, to come. Someone is going to hit the jackpot.”

With that, there comes the halcyon promises of asteroid mining. Perhaps it will help support off-world colonies, supplying spacecraft with the fuel necessary to traverse the solar system. Asteroids could be used to build vast space-based solar power stations, giving our planet an abundance of energy. And perhaps some mines on Earth could be replaced by space-based counterparts.

Such promises have been made about asteroid mining countless times before, and the failures of prior companies are a cautionary tale for those who dare venture this way again. But can things be different this time? To those who want to find out, Lewicki has some words of wisdom. “Don’t run out of money,” he says. “I can’t give advice on how, but that’s the challenge.”

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