For generations, Western space missions have largely taken place under the open sky. We knew where they were going, why they were going there and what they were planning to do. But the world is on the cusp of a new era in which private interests trump this openness, with potentially large sums of money at stake.
In the coming year, a spacecraft from AstroForge, a US asteroid mining company, could be launched on a mission to a rocky object near Earth’s orbit. If successful, it will be the first fully commercial deep space mission beyond the Moon. AstroForge, however, is keeping its target asteroid a secret.
The secret space rock-hunting mission is the latest in an emerging trend that astronomers and other experts don’t like: secretly conducted commercial space missions. Such missions highlight gaps in spaceflight regulation as well as concerns about whether exploration of the cosmos will continue to benefit all of humanity.
“I am absolutely not in favor of objects swirling around the inner solar system without anyone knowing where they are,” said Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Massachusetts. “That seems like a bad precedent to set.”
But for AstroForge, the calculation is simple: if it reveals the destination, a competitor could seize the precious metals from the asteroid.
“Canceling which asteroid we are targeting opens the door to the risk that another entity could take over that asteroid,” said Matt Gialich, general manager of AstroForge.
Asteroid mining entered a slump in recent years after two startups proposing to prospect the solar system collapsed in the late 2010s. But today, several companies in the United States, Europe and China are trying their luck again. Even a congressional committee held a hearing on the subject in December.
The renaissance is being sparked by a new wave of commercial space exploration, driven largely by SpaceX, the company founded by Elon Musk that flies reusable rocket boosters and has lowered the cost of access to space.
With this increased activity also comes increased secrecy.
In 2019, the commercial lander Beresheet, built in Israel, attempted to land on the Moon, but crashed. On board, kept secret until after the failed landing, were a few thousand tardigrades, microscopic animals provided by the nonprofit Arch Mission Foundation. The accident raised concerns about possible contamination of the moon by these hearty creatures and led to an investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration.
More recently, suborbital spaceflight company Virgin Galactic hid the identities of people aboard its spaceplane until missions were completed, a practice never before seen with human spaceflight. And some satellites hitching rides in space with many other orbital craft, in so-called rideshare missions, have also been kept secret.
“We see frequent launches where we don’t know which satellites are deployed until some time afterward,” said Dr. McDowell, who maintains a public database of spacecraft in orbit.
For missions beyond Earth, there are no legal restrictions against keeping the destination of a deep space mission secret, as AstroForge intends to do, said Michelle Hanlon, professor of specializing in space law at the University of Mississippi.
“We don’t have a real process for deep space missions like this,” she said, because “there’s no permitting process” in the United States.
But complex problems could arise if, for example, several asteroid miners arrived on the same asteroid.
“There needs to be some sort of transparency here,” Dr. McDowell said. He noted that although the United Nations requires space agencies and companies to reveal their orbits and trajectories in space, “this is generally ignored for objects in solar orbit.”
The absence of sanctions, he added, “should spark discussion among regulators.”
AstroForge’s mission, Odin, would be the second spacecraft sent into space. Its first in April, Brokkr-1, was a microwave-sized machine weighing about 25 pounds. The purpose of this mission was to practice metal refining in the space environment. The spacecraft, however, encountered problems, the company said on December 11. AstroForge is in a “race against time” to get Brokkr-1 up and running before it is lost.
Odin, on the other hand, is a much heavier 220 pounds. AstroForge plans to rely on a robotic mission to the Moon in 2024 by the company Intuitive Machines, sponsored by NASA and launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. A launch date has not yet been set.
During the journey to the moon, the plan is for Odin to be freed and venture into deep space beyond lunar orbit. Within a year, according to AstroForge, the spacecraft will fly past the mysterious asteroid, taking photos and looking for traces of metal.
AstroForge is targeting what is suspected to be an M-type asteroid. It is believed to be fragmented pieces of failed planetary cores and could be rich in precious platinum group metals, which have a wide range of uses, notably in health care and jewelry.
No spacecraft has ever visited such an asteroid before, although NASA’s Psyche mission, launched in October, is on a mission to a potential M-type asteroid, also called Psyche, between Mars and Jupiter. However, it will not arrive until August 2029, which will give AstroForge the chance to be the first to visit such an object.
So far, AstroForge has raised $13 million from investors. A full mining mission would require a much larger investment. But there are riches to be made if the business succeeds. On Earth, metals likely to be found on M-type asteroids can be difficult and expensive to extract. Iridium, for example, sells for thousands of dollars an ounce.
The economic case for recovering metals from asteroids has not always been so clear. It is difficult and expensive to return materials to Earth; NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission returned only about half a pound of material from an asteroid called Bennu in September, at an estimated cost of $1.16 billion.
AstroForge is confident in its financial outlook. “We hope to be able to return the materials at a high margin,” Mr. Gialich said. “We created our business model by leveraging ridesharing and partnerships to make each mission as economically viable as possible.”
Akbar Whizin, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute, said he understands the motivation for keeping the asteroid a secret. He previously worked for Planetary Resources, a mining startup that never hit an asteroid, and it, too, was coy about its targets.
“This is a commercial enterprise,” he said. “You wouldn’t go and tell people, ‘I know where the gold is.'”
But some scientists think asteroid miners should be more open about what they’re looking for. M-type asteroids offer humanity a window into the chaotic beginning of the solar system 4.5 billion years ago, when objects collided frequently and planets were born. That means whatever AstroForge discovers could have scientific value, said Stephanie Jarmak, a planetary scientist also at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
“I am a strong believer in open science,” said Dr. Jarmak, also a NASA Science Explorer project scientist. “We have never visited an M-type asteroid before, so we can learn a lot from it.”
This could include “information about heating processes that were occurring early in the history of the solar system,” said Andy Rivkin, an astronomer at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory who led the Earth’s DART mission. NASA aiming to impact an asteroid in September 2022.
“We will never reach the core of the Earth,” he said. “Visiting these types of objects will give us information that we can extrapolate to learn more about Earth and apply it to different planets.”
Benjamin Weiss, a planetary scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and deputy principal investigator of the Psyche mission, said the true nature of M-type asteroids is still unclear. Although “the prevailing hypothesis has always been” that M-type asteroids were metallic, he said, we weren’t sure.
In 2010, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta probe flew by the asteroid Lutetia. Scientists have discovered that it is not as metallic as previously thought. That would make whatever AstroForge discovers all the more interesting, Dr. Weiss said.
Mr. Gialich said AstroForge would be transparent except for the asteroid itself. “We don’t keep our mission secret,” he said. “We plan to share the images.”
Although AstroForge won’t reveal its target asteroid, it might be possible to determine where the company is going.
There are approximately 30,000 near-Earth asteroids, giving AstroForge many potential targets. But the company said its goal was less than 330 feet and achievable within a year of launch. This means that it must cross or at least pass close to Earth’s orbit. The asteroid is also suspected to be type M, brighter than other asteroids due to its potential metal content.
According to Mitch Hunter-Scullion, chief executive of Asteroid Mining Corporation, a potential competitor to AstroForge in Britain, these clues narrow the list of potential targets to “around 300 asteroids.”
Dr. Jarmak further refined the potential targets, taking into account brightness and size. “We have a list of 14 items,” she said.
Particularly promising among these is the 2010 CD55, which is approximately 270 feet in diameter, reasonably shiny – hinting at metallic content – and accessible from Earth at the time of AstroForge’s launch.
Mr. Gialich would neither verify nor deny this suggestion.
“We don’t want to publicly confirm our target asteroid,” he said.
He added that AstroForge is considering several targets. “We are actively tracking several asteroids that would be viable for our Odin mission if our launch date were shifted,” he said.
Even if the asteroid cannot be identified before launch, Dr. McDowell noted that it might be possible for amateur astronomers on Earth to track the spacecraft after it arrives in space and determine where it is going.
“There are some practical problems,” he said. “But I certainly think there will be interest in following it.”
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