IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

High risk, high reward: Startups are still eager to mine space rocks

With a more robust commercial space economy and launch lower costs now, deep-space mining startups are poised to pick up where others have failed.
Photo Illustration: Collage of an asteroid surrounded images of precious metals, the surface of the moon, rare earth elements and the solar system.
The potential payoff is a big reason the dream of asteroid mining has persisted for decades.Lauren Schatzman / NBC News

Matt Gialich knows the cosmic odds are against him, but he doesn’t seem to care.

Gialich is the co-founder of a startup called AstroForge, which aims to mine platinum from asteroids, process the materials in space and then sell the refined commodities back on Earth. It’s a venture that has the potential to be wildly lucrative, but it’s also one that for decades has seen its share of attempts and failures — remaining a tantalizing but elusive prospect for innovators and investors alike.

AstroForge wants to change that.

The company is slated to launch its first test mission Tuesday to demonstrate key technologies that could finally turn asteroid mining into a reality. Later this year, the startup has a second test flight planned to study a space rock up close that could become a prime target for a real mining mission.

For a company founded in 2021, it’s a timeline that is so ambitious as to almost seem reckless. But with launch costs now a fraction of what they were a decade ago and a more robust commercial space economy than ever before, AstroForge and other deep-space mining startups are poised to pick up where others have failed.

Gialich knows that if the tests are successful, they will transform not only his company, but also the entire space industry.

“If we work out, this is very, very lucrative,” he said. “I don’t hesitate to say it’s probably the most valuable company ever created, if we’re successful.”

Still, there’s a lot hinging on that success. AstroForge, which last year raised $13 million in seed funding, is hardly the first private enterprise to seriously pursue mining operations in space. A company called Planetary Resources was formed in 2009 to explore the idea of robotically mining a near-Earth asteroid. A few years later, a competitor called Deep Space Industries was founded. Both firms had high-profile investors attached. Both have since been acquired and have pivoted into different space tech sectors.

The potential payoff is a big reason why the dream of asteroid mining has persisted for decades. Platinum is valued at more than $32,000 per kilogram (almost $15,000 per pound). Asteroids are also thought to contain other precious and rare earth metals that are essential for producing many consumer electronics. On Earth, these raw materials are largely controlled by China, making access to them politically challenging. Other mined minerals are being depleted, setting up scarcity issues for future generations.

“There’s no easy-to-grab platinum on the surface anymore. It’s not like you can go discover some new continent,” Gialich said. “The next frontier really is space.”

He added that mining resources in the cosmos will cut down on the environmental degradation and associated greenhouse gas emissions that come with mining on Earth.

Extracting precious metals in space is no easy task. For one, metal-rich asteroids are less abundant than carbon-rich asteroids, said Richard Binzel, an astronomer who retired last year after spending 33 years teaching planetary science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“Extracting valuable metals is also extraordinarily difficult and technologically challenging,” he said, adding that deep-space mining seems more like a “resource for the space economy of the 22nd century,” rather than something that can be achieved in this century.

To overcome some of those technological hurdles, some companies have focused on mining water from icy deposits on the moon or space rocks first before jumping to precious metals.

It’s the kind of strategy being pursued by the United Kingdom-based Asteroid Mining Corp. Like AstroForge, the company aims to mine platinum from asteroids, but its founder and CEO Mitch Hunter-Scullion said he envisions a “Swiss Army knife approach” in which missions are tailored to extract whatever materials are of interest to customers, whether that is water, precious metals or other raw materials.

“We want to be incredibly modular from the offset, to provide a wide opportunity of applications that start to exploit these resources,” he added.

Hunter-Scullion said he is in talks with a company to conduct a mission in early 2026 to collect samples from the moon. Beyond that, the company is eyeing a mission to an asteroid by around 2031.

Binzel said he has consulted potential investors on the topic of space-based resources before, and has highlighted each time the enormous challenges of such operations.

“I tell them they have to have a very long time horizon,” he said. “The technological gap is too wide right now that I personally don’t see it being economically viable in this century. But, I always add that it would be great if I’m wrong.”

Gialich and AstroForge co-founder Jose Acain are counting on that.

Gialich said that what sets their company apart from others that came and went before it has a lot to do with fortuitous timing. Access to space has opened up in recent years as competition has increased among commercial rocket companies, significantly driving down the costs of launching into orbit.

“When Planetary Resources was around, if you wanted to go to the moon, it would have cost you $400 million,” he said. “We can do that for two orders of magnitude less. It’s not even in the same ballpark.”

For AstroForge’s test flight next week, the company purchased a “rideshare” that allows their small spacecraft to be one of several payloads aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Programs like that simply didn’t exist even a few years ago, and it’s one key way that AstroForge is able to move quickly and keep costs manageable.

The company also tries to leverage existing processes and knowledge. NASA and Japan’s space agency have both carried out sample-return missions to asteroids, and their findings have helped AstroForge engineers craft their missions and refine their models.

“What we’re doing is just taking what they did and trying to make it cheaper,” Gialich said. “NASA built a Ferrari and we’re trying to build a Honda Civic.”

The goal of AstroForge's first mission is to demonstrate that the company can refine materials in low-Earth orbit. This will involve heating a piece of metal until it turns from a solid state into a gas, then bombarding it with microwaves to ionize the gaseous metal, or positively charge the atoms. Magnets will then be used to separate out valuable metals from other materials that might be present on a space rock.

If all goes well, Gialich said, he wants to carry out the first real mining mission before the end of this decade.

Eventually, AstroForge hopes to extract 1,000 kilograms (about 22,000 pounds) of platinum or "platinum-group metals," which include rhodium, palladium and iridium, during each mission. Though the company has not revealed the price tag for such an undertaking, Gialich said he wants to keep the cost to around $10 million per launch.

If AstroForge does manage to pull asteroid mining out of the realm of science fiction, the company stands to earn a tidy profit. Gialich is not shy about the impact those margins could have, but he said he’s just as driven by the environmental and societal reasons to pursue off-world mining.

“We have a fundamental crisis when it comes to metal procurement and commodity procurement, and this is a perfect solution to that problem,” he said. “We’re mining space to benefit Earth. We are trying to solve a problem that faces the planet.”