February 24, 2024


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The first secret asteroid mission will not be the last

The first secret asteroid mission will not be the last

For generations, Western space missions have been largely conducted in public. We knew where they were going, why they were going there and what they planned to do. But the world stands on the brink of a new era in which special interests trump this openness, with big money potentially at risk.

Sometime next year, a spacecraft from AstroForge, an American asteroid mining company, may be launched on a mission to a rocky body near Earth's orbit. If successful, it will be the first fully commercial mission to deep space beyond the Moon. However, AstroForge keeps the target asteroid secret.

The secret space rock mission is the latest in an emerging trend that astronomers and other experts are not welcoming: conducting commercial space missions in secret. Such missions highlight loopholes in the organization of spaceflight, as well as concerns about whether exploration of the cosmos will continue to benefit all of humanity.

“I'm absolutely not in favor of having things orbiting 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. “It seems like a bad precedent to set.”

But for AstroForge, the calculation is simple: If it reveals the destination, a competitor might seize the asteroid's precious metals for itself.

“Announcing the asteroid we are targeting opens up the risk of another entity seizing this asteroid,” said Matt Gialich, CEO of AstroForge.

Asteroid mining has fallen into the doldrums in recent years after two startups proposing to mine the solar system went out of business in late 2010. But now several companies in the United States, Europe and China are making another attempt at the endeavor. Even a congressional committee A hearing on the matter was held in December.

The renaissance is being fueled by a new wave of commercial space exploration, driven largely by SpaceX, the company founded by Elon Musk that launches reusable rocket boosters and has lowered the cost of access to space.

With this increased activity, secrecy also increases.

In 2019, the Israeli-made commercial lander Beresheet attempted to land on the moon but crashed. He remained on the plane secretly even after the failed landing A few thousand tardigrades, microscopic animals provided by the nonprofit Arch Mission Foundation. The incident raised concerns about the potential contamination of the moon by powerful creatures and led to an investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration.

More recently, suborbital spaceflight company Virgin Galactic withheld the identities of people aboard its spaceplane until after missions, a practice not previously seen in human spaceflight. Some satellites are launched into space with many other orbital vehicles, in what is known as… Ride sharing missionsIt was also kept secret.

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“We are seeing frequent launches where we don't know what satellites have been deployed until some time has passed,” Dr. McDowell said. Public database of spacecraft in orbit.

For extraterrestrial missions, there are no legal restrictions that would prevent keeping the destination of a deep space mission secret, as AstroForge intends to do, said Michelle Hanlon, a space law professor at the University of Mississippi.

“We don't have an actual process for deep space missions like this,” she said, because “there is no licensing process” in the United States.

But complex problems can arise, for example, if multiple asteroid miners land on the same asteroid.

“There has to be some transparency here,” Dr. McDowell said. He pointed out that although the United Nations requires space agencies and companies to disclose their orbits and paths in space, “this is usually ignored for objects orbiting the sun.”

He added that the lack of penalties “should spark discussion among regulators.”

AstroForge's mission, Odin, will be the second spacecraft it sends into space. Its first device in April, the Brokkr-1, was a microwave-sized machine that weighed about 25 pounds. The goal of that mission was to practice metal refining in the space environment. The spacecraft had problems, but the company He said on December 11. AstroForge is in a “race against time” to get Brokkr-1 up and running before it is lost.

On the other hand, Odin weighs 220 pounds much heavier. AstroForge plans a robotic mission to the Moon in 2024 by NASA-sponsored Intuitive Machines and launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. A launch date has not yet been set.

During the trip to the moon, the plan is to release Odin and venture into deep space beyond the moon's orbit. Within a year, according to AstroForge, the spacecraft will fly by the mysterious asteroid, taking photos in the process and searching for evidence of the mineral's presence.

AstroForge is targeting what is suspected to be an M-type asteroid. These pieces are believed to be fragments of failed planetary cores and may be rich in valuable platinum group metals, which have Wide range of uses Including in healthcare and jewelry.

No spacecraft has visited such an asteroid before, although NASA's Psyche mission, launched in October, is on a mission to a possible M-type asteroid, also called Psyche, between Mars and Jupiter. However, it will not arrive until August 2029, giving AstroForge the opportunity to be the first to visit such an object.

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AstroForge has raised $13 million from investors to date. A full mining job requires a much larger investment. But there are fortunes to be made if the company succeeds. On Earth, extracting minerals that might be present on M-type asteroids would be difficult and expensive. Iridium, for example, sells for thousands of dollars per ounce.

The business case for extracting minerals from asteroids has not always been clear. It is difficult and expensive to return materials to the Earth; NASA's OSIRIS-REx mission returned only an estimated half a pound of material from an asteroid called Bennu in September at a cost of An estimated $1.16 billion.

AstroForge is confident about its financial prospects. “We expect to be able to return the material with a high margin,” Jialic said. “We built our business model by leveraging touring quotas and partnerships to make each mission as economically viable as possible.”

Akbar Wezin, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute, said he understood the motivation behind keeping the asteroid a secret. He previously worked at Planetary Resources, a mining startup Didn't hit any asteroidsShe was also shy about her goals.

“This is a commercial project,” he added. “You're not going to go and tell people, 'I know where the gold is.'”

But some scientists think asteroid miners should be more prepared about what they go after. M-type asteroids give humanity a window into the chaotic early solar system 4.5 billion years ago, when objects frequently collided and created planets. This means anything AstroForge discovers could be of scientific value, said Stephanie Jarmack, also a planetary scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

“I'm a big supporter of open science,” said Dr. Jarmack, who is also one of the project's scientists. NASA Science Explorer. “We've never visited an M-type asteroid before, so there's a lot we can learn.”

That could include “insight into heating processes that were occurring early in the history of the solar system,” said Andy Rifkin, an astronomer at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory who led NASA's DART mission to impact an asteroid in September 2022.

“We will never reach the core of the Earth,” he said. “So visiting this type of object will give us information that we can extrapolate to learn more about Earth and apply that to different planets.”

The true nature of M-type asteroids remains unclear, said Benjamin Weiss, a planetary scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and deputy principal investigator for the Psyche mission. Although the “prevailing assumption” is that M-type asteroids are metallic, we don't know that for sure, he said.

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In 2010, the European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft It flew past the asteroid Lutetia. Scientists discovered that it was not as metallic as thought. This would make anything AstroForge discovers even more worthwhile, Dr. Weiss said.

AstroForge will be transparent, except about the asteroid itself, Mr. Gialich said. He added: “We do not keep our mission secret.” “We plan to share photos.”

While AstroForge is not revealing the target asteroid, it may be possible to find out where the company is headed.

There are about 30,000 asteroids known to be near Earth, giving AstroForge many potential targets. But the company said its goal is for it to be less than 330 feet in size, which could be reached 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 an M-type, which is brighter than other asteroids due to its possible metal content.

According to Mitch Hunter Scullion, CEO of Asteroid Mining Corporation, a potential competitor to Britain's AstroForge, these clues narrow the list of potential targets to “about 300 asteroids.”

Dr. Jarmack further refined the potential targets, taking into account brightness and size. “We have a list of 14 items,” she said.

Among those planets is particularly promising 2010 CD55, which is about 270 feet across, is reasonably bright — indicating metal content — and is accessible from Earth in the time frame of AstroForge's launch date.

Mr. Jialic neither confirmed nor denied this suggestion.

He added: “We do not want to publicly confirm our target for the asteroid.”

He added that there were multiple goals that AstroForge was considering. “We are actively tracking several asteroids that may be suitable for our Odin mission if the launch date is delayed,” he said.

Even if the asteroid cannot be identified before launch, Dr. McDowell noted that it may be possible for amateur astronomers on Earth to track the spacecraft after it reaches space and find out its destination.

“There are some practical issues,” he added. “But I definitely think there will be interest in tracking it.”