The possibility of space mining has long captured the imagination and even inspired business ventures. Now, a space startup in China is taking its first steps towards testing capabilities to identify and extract off-Earth resources.
Origin Space, a Beijing-based private space resources company, is set to launch its first ‘space mining robot’ in November. NEO-1 is a small (around 30 kilograms) satellite intended to enter a 500-kilometer-altitude sun-synchronous orbit. It will be launched by a Chinese Long March series rocket as a secondary payload.
This small spacecraft will not be doing actual mining; instead, it will be testing technologies. “The goal is to verify and demonstrate multiple functions such as spacecraft orbital maneuver, simulated small celestial body capture, intelligent spacecraft identification and control,” says Yu Tianhong, an Origin Space co-founder.
Origin Space, established in 2017, describes itself as China’s first firm focused on the utilization of space resources. China’s private space sector emerged following a 2014 government decision to open up the industry. Because asteroid mining has often been talked of as potentially a trillion-dollar industry, it is no surprise that a company focused on this area has joined the likes of others developing rockets and small satellites.
Another mission, Yuanwang-1 (‘Look up-1’), and nicknamed “Little Hubble”, is slated to launch in 2021. A deal for development of the satellite was reached with DFH Satellite Co., Ltd., a subsidiary of China’s main state-owned space contractor CASC, earlier this year.
The “Little Hubble” satellite will carry an optical telescope designed to observe and monitor Near Earth Asteroids. Origin Space notes that identifying suitable targets is the first step toward space resources utilization.
Beyond this, Origin Space will also be taking aim at the moon with NEO-2, with a target launch date of late 2021 or early 2022.
Yu says the lunar project plan is not completed, but includes an eventual lunar landing. The tentative mission profile envisions an indirect journey to our celestial neighbor. The spacecraft will first be launched into low-Earth orbit and then gradually raise its orbit with onboard propulsion until it reaches a lunar orbit. The spacecraft will—after completing its observation goals—make a hard landing on the lunar surface.
While Chandrayaan-2, India’s second lunar mission, used a circuitous route to go from geosynchronous transfer orbit out to lunar orbit, a small spacecraft with limited propulsion may take a long time to reach the moon.
The issue of space resources became a hot topic once again after NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine last week announced that the agency will purchase lunar regolith and rock samples from commercial companies once they have collected moon material.
But Brian Weeden, Director of Program Planning for the Secure World Foundation, says that space resources companies still face myriad challenges, including the logistics extracting resources and the small matter of who (other than NASA) is going to buy them.
“We've heard a lot about water on the Moon, but if you talk to any lunar scientist they will tell you we don't actually know what the chemical composition of that water is and how difficult it will be to extract and refine it into a usable product," says Weeden.
“The same thing goes for asteroids to an even greater degree. On Earth, we have massive mining operations and factories and smelteries to refine raw materials into usable products. How much of that will you need in space and how do you build it?” Weeden says.
He adds: “Right now the only real customers are the national space agencies that are planning to do things on the Moon. They might have a use for lunar regolith as a building material and water for fuel and life support. But aside from the very small contract we saw from NASA last week, I haven't seen any major interest from governments in buying those materials commercially or at what price.”
Origin Space is far from the only or first space mining company. Planetary Resources, a U.S.-based firm, was established back in 2009 before suffering funding issues and eventually being acquired by blockchain firm ConsenSys in 2018. Another U.S. venture, Deep Space Industries, was acquired in January 2019 and is apparently pivoting away from asteroid mining towards developing small satellites. Meanwhile Tokyo-based ispace recently raised $28 million for the first of a series of lunar landers.
Asked about learning from the case of companies such as Planetary Resources, Yu stated that the firm was a pioneer in the space resources industry, adding that it is always challenging for the first players in the game. “We think they lack important milestones and revenue. We are working hard to accelerate the progress of milestone projects while generating revenue.”
36Kr, a Chinese technology publishing and data company, reports (Chinese) that Origin Space will launch a pre-A financing round at the end of the year to fund the planned lunar exploration mission.