The Future Of The Space Economy | CNBC Marathon

The Future Of The Space Economy | CNBC Marathon

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The first trillionaire there will ever be is the person who exploits the natural resources on asteroids. A single asteroid the size of a football field could contain $25 billion to $50 billion worth of platinum. There's enough material in the asteroids to support a population of a trillion people. The spacesuits that are being used now in the International Space Station by NASA are suits that were really designed in the '70s. Estimates show that by the time new spacesuits are actually in use, NASA will have spent more than $1 billion on the redesign and production.

NASA will likely not build the next space station. Instead, the agency will depend on the technology of outside companies. The lifetime of the International Space Station might be coming to an end. This may look like an astronaut training for the Olympics, but that's not what's really happening here.

For the ISS, you want a rigid lower half with the ability to rotate around the waist. And then a consistent working envelope, which is about right here in front of you. Easy to translate along the handrails. So low torque in the upper joints. Good dexterity in the gloves is a big one.

Eric Valis is a senior systems engineer. He's been testing out a prototype of a new spacesuit, which NASA hopes to use on the International Space Station by 2026. The spacesuits that are being used now in the International Space Station by NASA are suits that were really designed in the '70s. These are suits that were originally designed for the Space Shuttle program. Due to the lack of funding, NASA kept working on them, kept repairing them and maintaining them for all these many years.

But really, these are suits that are at the end of their useful life. NASA tried to update its suits in the past. A 2021 report by NASA's Office of Inspector General found that NASA has spent over a decade and an estimated $420 million to develop a next-generation replacement for its aging spacesuits, but failed to produce any operational suits. Estimates show that by the time new spacesuits are actually in use, NASA will have spent more than $1 billion on the redesign and production. There were two different issues. One was a lack of funding.

NASA had to get funds, you know, from sometimes from other projects to fund their suit. And the second problem was that there was no destination. The projects of NASA have been moving through different political agendas during the last few years, and something that you need in any scientific and technological organization is a purpose and a timeline. NASA is now going another route, contracting with commercial companies to make and maintain its new suits. So without further ado, I'm very happy to announce that the awardees will be Axiom Space and Collins Aerospace industry team.

CNBC got a rare look inside Collins Aerospace's new 120,000 square foot manufacturing and testing facility located at the Houston Spaceport in Texas, where the company showed us its new spacesuit. NASA's current spacesuits, known as Extravehicular Mobility Units, or EMUs in NASA speak, are very complex. The current spacesuit has roughly 18,000 components that make it up, and the interior volume of the suit is roughly equivalent to the size of a small refrigerator, about 5.5 cubic feet. There have been a number of safety concerns over the years due to the aging spacesuits.

A final investigation is in following the near drowning in space of that Italian astronaut doing a spacewalk outside the International Space Station. His equipment failed him. In fact, they say it was his calm demeanor that probably saved his life after his helmet filled with water. In 2022, NASA temporarily suspended all spacewalks following another incident where an astronaut's helmet filled with water. We're starting to see some degradation of performance, some components that need to be replaced.

So on space station, we're we're really watching very, very closely the performance of the EMUs while they are still on orbit. In the meantime, these new suits for this particular failure of water in the helmet, the new designs are designed such that that failure mechanism cannot occur. Inventory issues are also a problem. In 2019, NASA was forced to cancel what would have been the first all-female spacewalk on the International Space Station because the agency did not have the proper spacesuit sizes available for both female astronauts. In the beginning of human space exploration, the spacewalks were custom-made. With the

beginning of the space shuttle program, there was this idea of abandoning the custom size system and going to small, medium and large. That worked for a while, but as our astronaut corps is getting more and more diverse, the sizes don't work anymore. NASA's Office of Inspector General also noted that of the original 18 Primary Life Support System units, only 11 remain in NASA's inventory to support the ISS program, with only four of these units actually on the ISS at any given time for astronauts to use during spacewalks. These are suits that were originally designed not to be serviced in space, but to be serviced here on Earth because they were dependent on the space shuttle. So now kind of changing the objective because they have to keep them up there. And the astronauts are the only ones who can repair and maintain them. So the number is very, very

minimal. The Portable Life Support System, or PLSS, resembles a bulky backpack and is one of the two main components of the spacesuit, or EMU. The PLSS houses a variety of components that perform functions needed to keep an astronaut alive in space, including providing oxygen, maintaining body temperature, and removing carbon dioxide buildup from the spacesuit. The second major component is the Pressure Garment System, or PGS, which is the white garment that surrounds astronauts. Its main purpose is to maintain appropriate pressure around astronauts' bodies, to keep them alive in the vacuum of space, as well as protect them from orbital debris. Underneath the PGS, astronauts don a liquid cooling and ventilation garment through which cool water flows to help regulate their body temperature. The new suit designs follow a similar

suit structure but are modernized. There's just normal, what we call obsolescence issues. Certain parts we just can't get anymore. And so we are building a new suit so that we can start using new components, take advantage of all of the new technologies that are available to us now that just simply weren't available nearly 50 years ago. Under the Exploration Extravehicular Activity Services contract, or xEVAs, NASA is providing Collins and Axiom, along with a number of their industry partners, with up to $3.5 billion through 2034. Axiom won the first $228.5 million contract to

design the suits that will be used during NASA's Artemis moon missions, and Collins won the second $97.2 million contract to design and develop a new generation of suits for the International Space Station. In addition to making the spacesuits, Collins and Axiom will be tasked with providing maintenance and parts to keep the suits in working condition, as well as conducting training and operational support for NASA staff. The beauty of this contract is the functional requirements for these two suits are very, very close. So at any given time, we could ask either of those contractors to actually start working on the other what we call platforms. And we also have what we call an onramp clause in the contract, which means if another company comes into play and they have the capability to compete, we can actually bring them onto the contract and allow them to compete on task orders as well.

Kearney says the continued competition helps incentivize the contractors to perform on cost and schedule, and ultimately helps keep the expense to the government down. In addition to the fiscal support, NASA also provided the vendors with access to data from the organization's own suit development efforts through its xEMU project. What we basically did was take that design, and we made it available to industry because we put a lot of of work and taxpayer money into developing that system. And so as industry came in and proposed on the

Artemis suits, they were able to use any of the data we had available from the xEMU development effort. Axiom Space would not give CNBC a sneak peek of its spacesuit designs prior to a public reveal. To design this new spacesuit, Collins Aerospace is working with longtime partner ILC Dover as well as Oceaneering. Collins, which is part of aerospace and defense giant Raytheon Technologies is responsible for the life support system, while ILC Dover is in charge of devising the pressure garment.

Oceaneering will handle spacesuit and vehicle interface capabilities. The companies have a long history of working with NASA. We were actually selected to design and develop and provide those spacesuits for the Apollo mission, along with our partner, ILC Dover.

We were actually also selected to design and develop the Space Shuttle EMU, or Extravehicular Mobility Unit. ILC Dover and Collins also designed the spacesuits that astronauts currently use on the ISS. One striking difference, though, is the weight.

The current EMU weighs about 275 pounds on Earth, significantly heavier than the prototype that CNBC saw. There are also other upgrades. This helmet is different than the one that's used on the EMU now. It offers a better range of visibility. It has protective visors to protect from the sun's radiation and glare.

The upper torso is adjustable so it fits crew members better and can be adjusted while they're on orbit, or doing a mission to help prevent shoulder injuries and to make their EVA more comfortable for them. The upper arm is also new to this architecture. It provides a better range of motion and a lower torque motion than the current EMU. Ferl says that while the current EMU fits the 5th to 95th percentile of astronauts, this new suit is designed to fit the 1st to 99th percentile of astronauts using fewer parts. As a result, 30% less hardware needs to be launched into space, meaning lower launch costs and decreased crew training time.

Another big improvement in this new generation of suits is their increased mobility and range of motion. Things like standing up. You really got to find the angles to rotate your body, but it's definitely something that we couldn't do before in the EMU. Extended range of motion becomes particularly important for planetary exploration, though Collins' contract with NASA calls for making spacesuits for the International Space Station. The company and its

partners are designing the suit with future planetary missions, like trips to Mars and the moon, in mind. For something like the moon or Mars, definitely the less restriction you have in the lower body, the better. Being able to catch yourself if you start to fall is a big plus, especially with all the dust concerns. So good mobility stabilization is important. One of the biggest technological challenges for going back to the moon is the dust. Dust particles, which are like the consistency of talcum powder, they sieve through any fabric so the fabric has to be coated or solid against the intrusion of dust particles.

A lot of the lessons learned from Apollo need to be applied and incorporated, so greater mobility, reduced mass, greater connectivity for the astronauts. They need a better ability to see what is going on with their suits, communicate with each other. Because as we continue to go further and further from Earth, you're going to have to have all of that capability really self-contained. Crew members need to be able to operate somewhat independently from Earth. Something else that suit makers have to consider is the length of time that astronauts will be spending on missions.

When we think about some of those longer duration missions, some of the other aspects that we've incorporated is really just the maintainability, the ability to do maintenance at lower levels and enable that work to be done at the destination. So we've incorporated modularity and open architecture. So as new technologies are introduced, they can be incorporated into the suit. Under the contract stipulations, NASA has asked Axiom to deliver the suits for its Artemis moon mission by August 2025, while Collins is spacesuits are scheduled for delivery by 2026. Prior to being worn by astronauts on missions, the suits have to undergo extensive testing.

We require crew member testing in the pressure garment to make sure they're meeting the mobility requirements. And then we also require testing what we call relevant environments. So that could be a thermal vacuum chamber. That could be in the NBL.

That could be actually testing on orbit on space station. Since NASA is purchasing its suits from Collins and Axiom as a service, the vendors are free to make additional suits for non-NASA customers as well. Though Collins would not disclose the names of any of its other customers, the company says it's speaking with about 8 to 10 companies who are interested in their spacesuit services. New customers that we're looking at are not just the current batch of commercial space customers. There are countries that are looking to be involved in space that were not in the past able to participate, and as space commercializes and becomes more affordable, those countries now have the opportunity to step in. Romero also predicts that the design of these new spacesuits will continue to evolve to fit the new use cases of its broader customer base.

Today, we use it for maintenance and repair, very little for experiential activities where you're going out and doing space tourism. That's really not a part of EVA today, but that probably will become a part of EVA in the future. Future programs will have more interaction with robotics, so our suit needs to be in a position to be able to communicate with the robotic systems and be able to safely operate around a robot. And it could be big business.

The space tourism market is poised to reach $4 billion by 2030. NASA is also looking beyond commercial companies for ideations of future spacesuits. In 2020, Pablo de Leon and his team at the Spaceflight Laboratory at the University of North Dakota won a $750,000 NASA grant to develop a new 3D printed spacesuit prototype for Mars and beyond.

De Leon has worked on a number of NASA spacesuit projects in the past, but says this one's a little different. Some of the advantages will be, first, to make repeatable manufacturing. The second will be that you can scan the body and then build a suit that will be specifically designed precisely to that particular astronaut. And the third one is that once that our spaceflights go farther away from the Earth and we go, say, to Mars, for example.

We're more than one year away from our planet, and if we need a replacement, say, a glove, a boot, any other part of the spacesuit, you know, we are one year away to get that replacement. So what about if you can build a machine that will put together your suits and you bring that machine to Mars? De Leon adds that exploring the surface of the moon and Mars will likely mean that astronauts will be using the spacesuits much more frequently. Going back to the moon will require that we'll do explorations almost every day or every two days.

The same for Mars. Spacesuits, I think they kind of hit a nerve with people just because there's a very human element to them. It's exciting to work on, something that's so critical, that keeps crew members alive and safe. I know it's a big responsibility that we feel every day when we make decisions in the designs. Yeah, it's really it's really exciting. It comes equipped with labs, a gym, sleeping quarters, two bathrooms and the view is literally out of this world.

Liftoff of the proton rocket and the Zarya control module. The first segments of the International Space Station were launched in 1998, and since 2000, the ISS has continuously housed a rotating group of astronauts from 19 countries. At about 250 miles above the Earth, the International Space Station occupies an area known as Low Earth Orbit, or LEO, and houses the only laboratory available for long duration microgravity research. This research has been instrumental in a number of scientific developments, including creating more efficient water filtration systems and exploring new ways to treat diseases such as Alzheimer's and cancer.

But it's starting to show its age. Astronauts launched a very complicated series of spacewalks today to fix a cosmic ray detector at the International Space Station. Space is a harsh environment, and we've seen over the past couple of years small leaks appear within the space station.

These are not life threatening. There's nothing serious, but it is an indication that the lifetime of the International Space Station might be coming to an end. International Space Station is currently approved to operate through at least December 2024, with our agreements with the international partners. However, as we are actively working to continue to do science and research, we understand that the is at some point will have its end of life.

But NASA will likely not build the next space station. Instead, the agency will depend on the technology of outside companies. A few, like Colorado-based Sierra Space, are well on their way to constructing their own commercial space station. So here we are in the inside of our life elements. It's nearly 30 feet in diameter. We have it broken

up into three decks. Space station right now is jam-packed. There's no room, there's no capacity. So by starting

with a large unit volume and then being able to build up a station from multiple elements allows you to greatly scale the capacity of your space station, not just for NASA astronauts and international astronauts, but for commercial activities such as manufacturing. Right now, we just don't have the space to do those things. As space enters the commercial age, here's what a new International Space Station may look like.

Over the last couple of years, NASA has increasingly relied on outside companies to complete tasks that have traditionally been reserved for the government agency. Under its Commercial Resupply Services program, NASA has contracts with SpaceX and Northrop Grumman to send cargo resupply missions to the ISS. Last year, SpaceX made history by becoming the first private sector company to carry NASA astronauts to the ISS under NASA's Commercial Crew Program. Boeing is also under contract as part of the program, but is still conducting uncrewed tests. The commercial crew and commercial resupply programs are largely considered a success for NASA.

Last year, the agency estimated that the Commercial Crew Program saved the government between $20 and $30 billion. Since SpaceX and Boeing each designed their own spacecraft under the contract, NASA had the added benefit of having a backup in case something should happen with one of the vehicles. This has proved wise, as Boeing has struggled to get its spacecraft certified for human flight. NASA is now hoping to replicate the success of its commercial crew and commercial cargo programs with the Commercial LEO Destinations project. As part of the project, NASA plans to award up to $400 million in total to as many as four companies to begin development of private space stations. Covering just part of the developmental cost of the station would be a big money saver for NASA.

The ISS cost $150 billion to build, and the U.S. picked up the largest chunk of that bill, ahead of its partners Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada. NASA also spends about $4 billion a year to operate the ISS. Development of new markets and new technologies is very expensive, and the government is usually the prime party to make those things happen. We have done that in LEO, and so we do expect that we will save money moving to this model.

A number of private companies are already well on their way to launching private space stations. One of the companies at the forefront of creating a commercial space station is Houston-based Axiom Space. In fact, back in 2020, NASA awarded the company a $140 million contract to provide at least one habitable module to attach the International Space Station. Axiom Space plans on starting out with four modules. The first two will be crew quarters that will

be decked out with infotainment systems and massive windows overlooking Earth. Some space will also be reserved for research and technology development projects. The third module will be geared strictly towards research and manufacturing, and the fourth will be a solar array so that Axiom's modules can separate and operate independently from the ISS when it's eventually retired. Prior to that, we'll be getting power from the ISS, but we'll fly up our own solar arrays.

On the fourth module, we'll have our own airlock so that we can do spacewalks. And then once we separate from ISS, we have the ability to continue to add to our station really indefinitely. And we envision being able to add modules that are custom for customers, that we might build an entire module that's specific to a particular customer's manufacturing or research needs. Funding for its new space station will also likely come from Axiom's private astronaut missions. Axiom has a deal with SpaceX to use the company's Crew Dragon capsule and Falcon 9 rocket to fly a total of four crewed missions to the ISS, starting as early as January 2022. Although Axiom does not make the price of its private missions public, a flight with Axiom is estimated to cost tens of millions of dollars, as NASA pays SpaceX about $55 million per seat to fly its astronauts to the space station.

But Axiom is confident that it can build a station that's much cheaper than the $150 billion NASA spent on the ISS. We think we need about $1.2 billion or so to build the four modules, and we're on track to do that. One of the ways axiom has been able to bring down the cost of its space station is by utilizing technologies from other industries. Our battery technology is very similar to electric vehicle battery technology. The computer chip in your iPhone, say an iPhone X or newer, is very, very similar to the chip that we'll use as our computer.

Axiom Space plans to launch its first module in 2024, and its fourth module toward the end of 2027. Sierra Space is another company that's been working on building a commercial space station. This is just a mock up of how we might divide some of the space. So we've put up walls here and some basic curtains. We have some crew quarter examples in here.

Some of these could be used, the storage closets could be used for hygiene, room for brushing your teeth, spending personal time, certainly toilet space as well is required. Since 2017, Sierra Space has been developing an inflatable structure that it calls the Life Habitat. Originally, it was designed to be a habitat that could take four astronauts basically from lunar orbit to Mars, essentially designed for a thousand-day mission. Since then, Sierra Space has worked to adapt the design to also function as a habitat for the surface of Mars or the moon, as well as act as a free floating commercial station in low Earth orbit. CNBC saw a mock up of the Life Habitat at Kennedy Space Center, where it's undergoing testing.

The structure is one third the volume of the International Space Station, and spans 27 feet in both diameter and length. The mock up we visited only had two floors, but the final version will have three. We had astronauts in that were evaluating the space and the layout. One of the things they brought up is

you can actually get trapped in this space in here. So because we're so large, we have to be conscious of the fact that we have to make sure that there's holds and means that if a crew member is within this large space, that they can actually grab ahold of something and move themselves to different spaces within the habitat. The structure is meant to be inflated in space after it's launched. It was about 40 missions to build the space station. We can have an operational space station up in two missions. Our life habitat, because it's it expands once we get it on orbit, we can get a lot of volume up there very, very quickly. So that's a that's a pretty

significant savings in both time and money compared to what we did on space station. Sierra Space is also developing its own transportation vehicle called the Dream Chaser. When you talk about the $3 to $4 billion a year it costs to operate Space Station, one of the big pieces of it is transportation. And so that's where our Dream Chaser comes into play.

We have a reusable spacecraft that we can use a minimum of 15 times. So we're reducing the cost of that. The launch vehicle pricing is coming down.

We're taking advantage of that. So you have to reduce the cost of transportation and you have to reduce the cost of operations. Initially, Sierra Space believes its largest market will come from NASA and other countries space agencies who want to conduct research in zero gravity. But down the road, the company hopes to

supplement that revenue stream with more commercial activities, like manufacturing in space tourism and even TV and film production. Sierra Space says the initial elements of its space station will be in orbit by 2026 or 2027. The race is on for private sector companies to launch a commercial space station before the ISS is retired, likely within the decade.

Both Axiom Space and Sierra Space say that they are confident that they can have an operational space station up and running in time. Another aerospace company, Nanoracks, plans to have its first private space stations up by 2024. But instead of building a whole new structure, Nanoracks plans to recycle the spent upper stages of rockets and transform them into research stations.

But as with any space endeavor, timelines often change. Just take the Commercial Crew program. The program's original goal was to send astronauts to the ISS by 2017, but early funding cuts and a number of failed tests delayed the launch until 2020, and not having a station finished in time could spell real trouble for NASA. We retire the International Space Station without having commercial space stations ready. There's going to be a gap in capabilities.

And NASA's already experienced such a gap. After the agency ended the shuttle program in 2011, NASA was forced to rely on Russian Soyuz rockets to launch its astronauts to the International Space Station, and the U.S. paid Russia a pretty penny, over $90 million per seat. When SpaceX stepped in in 2020, that cost was reduced to $55 million per seat.

One of the things that is slowing down this effort that might contribute to a gap in the space station capabilities, is the lack of funding that Congress has given NASA to kick start this commercial space station and commercial low Earth orbit operations. In fiscal years 2020 and 2021, NASA requested $150 million for low Earth orbit commercial development, but only received $15 million and $17 million, respectively. In July, the House granted NASA $45 million for commercial Leo development, less than half of what the organization had requested. Commercial companies can also expect competition from other countries. This is a race to establish permanent presence in low Earth orbit and the moon, and as of today, China seems to be winning that particular race.

Tonight's launch is the country's first crewed flight in nearly five years, sending three astronauts to the space station it's building as it seeks to become a major space faring power by 2030. Russia is also planning its own space station. Serving government customers like NASA can be a springboard to kick start the economy for commercial companies, but a larger, private market will likely be the key to their long term success and potentially their biggest moneymaker.

NASA provides the money, but the money that NASA is providing is is wholly insufficient for us to do this. So we would not do this or invest in ourselves if we did not believe in that market. We really think that manufacturing will be the real game changer. There's been some really interesting demonstrations on ice where people have flown experiments, and they've developed fiber optic cable that has 100 times transmission length, or they've found ways to bio print perfect retinal implants. But if it was successful, then what? You know, there was no place to manufacture it at scale. And so by building a commercial space station and a commercial destination, we now have the ability to build things at scale and to manufacture things at scale and to help customers do that, including building an entire module specifically for a customer to do that kind of manufacturing.

As for NASA, not having to invest in a space station will free up money for other endeavors. We've had all these years of success on the ISS, and NASA now wants to put our eye toward moon and Mars and other exploration items and turn over this area of space to the commercial market. Just a couple of years ago, it seemed that space mining was inevitable. Analysts, tech visionaries and even renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson predicted that space mining was going to be big business. The first trillionaire that will ever be is the person who exploits the natural resources on asteroids.

In a 2017 note to investors, a Goldman Sachs analyst wrote, "Space mining could be more realistic than perceived. A single asteroid the size of a football field could contain $25 billion to $50 billion worth of platinum." Space mining companies like Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries, backed by the likes of Google's Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, cropped up to take advantage of the predicted payoff. After all, the holy grail of asteroids known as 16 Psyche had an estimated worth of $10,000 quadrillion. But fast forward to 2022, and both

Planetary Resources and deep space industries have been acquired by companies that have nothing to do with space mining. And humanity has yet to commercially mine even a single asteroid. But that hasn't stopped a new crop of startups from trying.

AstroForge's mission, obviously, is to leave Earth with a vehicle, go out to an asteroid, mine it for its rare earth elements, and then return that to Earth to be sold. TransAstra was founded with the mission of working towards the vision of harnessing the resources of space, especially the asteroids, for the betterment of humanity. There's enough material in the asteroids to support a population of a trillion people.

So far, the closest we've gotten to mining an asteroid has been prospecting missions. In October 2020, NASA collected a small dust sample from the asteroid Bennu as part of its OSIRIS-REx mission. The sample is not due to return until 2023, but during the mission, scientists were surprised to learn that Bennu's surface was not as solid as predicted. In December of 2020, Japan's Aerospace Exploration Agency brought back a sample of an asteroid known as Ryugu as part of its Hayabusa2 mission to collect the sample. The agency fired a projectile at the asteroid and scooped up the flying material. Like Bennu, scientists found that Ryugu also had a rubble pile surface.

Although these recent advancements by the likes of NASA and JAXA have provided useful information on the composition of asteroids, space mining has yet to become a commercial endeavor. So what's taking so long? For one, space mining is a long term endeavor, and one that VC's did not necessarily have the patience to support. If we had to develop a full-scale asteroid mining vehicle today, we would need a few hundred million dollars to do that using commercial processes.

It would be difficult to convince the investment community that that's the right thing to do. Take NASA's OSIRIS-REx mission, for example, which is expected to take seven years to complete and cost over $1 billion, all to bring back a handful of asteroid material and planetary resources. Despite its millions in investment, the closest the company ever got to asteroid mining was launching a satellite to prospect future targets. In fact, the mining of celestial objects has become a point of satire showcasing corporate greed.

As seen in this clip from Netflix's 2021 film Don't Look Up. This comet hurtling towards us from deep space actually contains at least $32 trillion of these critical materials critical to technology. I'm sorry, is that why you aborted this entire mission? Is because you're trying to mine the comet for rare minerals. We should hold off. Others say mining precious metals to sell on earth never made much economic sense. If you look at platinum.

The production cost for platinum is around $1,100 even more. And the price per ounce platinum is less than $1,000. So it means the earth mining is not profitable right now. When analysts made their predictions, they were looking at the the amount of the precious metals and materials in the asteroids, and they didn't look at the economies of the industries. In today's economics and in the economics of the near future, the next few years. It makes no sense to go after precious metals and asteroids. And the reason is the cost of getting to

and from the asteroids is so high that it vastly outstrips the value of anything that you'd harness from the asteroids. When we think of space mining, precious metals likely come to mind. But in fact, asteroids can contain other materials, which in the short term could be even more valuable. There is mining materials in space for use in space, and then there is return to Earth, the return to Earth ideas. They have to compete against terrestrial markets for those same materials. That would be very challenging, and it may happen someday, but it's most likely in the far future. But in the near term is mining materials for

use in space. The number one item is water. There are certain types of asteroids that have hydrated minerals. We can process those minerals to release the water. Our best use of the water is actually as processing to to make it into a rocket propellant. And then with rocket propellant we can move around space more readily. We don't have to launch all of our propellant from Earth.

Gabor says she agrees that when it comes to mining the cosmos, we should look beyond precious metals. In short term. We should focus on helium and water, helium, because it's not readily available on Earth, and water because it has a potential use in space.

An attorney by trade, she spent several years working with the European Space Agency and decided to focus his legal expertise on advising space startups. He's now an advisor for an Australian startup that aims to mine water and helium three from the moon, an isotope of helium, helium three has applications in national security medicine and cryogenics. Recent helium shortages have forced some research labs to suspend their projects and induce national security concerns. Knowing what we can mine is one thing, but figuring out how to mine it is another. Brace with new data from NASA and JAXA, scientists and companies have had to devise new ways to mine asteroids.

An older thinking, landing on asteroids and anchoring to them, and drilling or excavating where the scheme that may now look less viable because of what we've learned of asteroids. Scientists typically categorize asteroids by their composition type. C-type, Or carbonaceous asteroids, are most common and are made up of clay and silicate rocks and contain water. S-type, or stony asteroids, are the second

most common, and are generally made up of a metallic nickel iron and magnesium silicate mixture. Finally, M-type, or metallic asteroids, account for the rest of the known asteroids and are thought to be primarily made of nickel iron. What we've learned is that most asteroids are rubble piles, as opposed to one big, mountain-sized, solid piece of material.

Based on this new understanding of asteroids, TransAstra has been working with Dreier to develop a technology it calls optical mining. The optical mining process that we've invented involves, step one, capturing the asteroid in an enclosure, what we call a capture bag. The asteroids are typically spinning because that's what they do in space. Our spacecraft matches the spin with the asteroid, flies the bag over the asteroid, captures it, and cinches it down tight, so we have positive control.

Now, once we contain the asteroid in our capture bag, then our solar reflectors redirect that concentrated sunlight into the capture bag, and we use it to drill holes in the asteroid and heat up the material and drive the volatiles, the water and the other gases, out of the minerals. And then we can capture those volatiles in an ice trap. TransAstra is initially focusing on mining water to make rocket propellant, which Sercel says will enable low-cost space travel.

But eventually the company plans to harvest everything on the periodic table. We've calculated that a single trans asteroid mining vehicle, one we call the Honeybee, can fly out to an asteroid and bring back about 100 tons of water and other ices in a single mission. It's worth about $1 billion. And we know that because we have a contract to deliver 100 tons of ice in geostationary orbit from a publicly-traded company. But that kind of revenue is still a ways off.

TransAstra is funded by about $5 million in grants and contracts from NASA, and several million in venture funds. To keep itself above board, Sercel says that TransAstra is focusing on developing its intellectual property piecemeal, using the tech that will eventually be incorporated into its mining missions to satisfy already existing market needs. One of the commercial opportunities is traffic management. With our Sutter Telescope technology, we can turn a small, inexpensive commercial telescope into a powerful instrument that can see space traffic and orbital debris something the size of a toaster oven all the way out to the orbit of the moon.

TransAstra has already deployed its telescope system at two observatories in the U.S., with the technology currently being used for asteroid prospecting. Eventually, TransAstra also plans to launch its telescope tech into space to be able to see deeper into the universe.

Likewise, there's a burgeoning orbital logistics business today for delivering satellites to their orbital destinations from where rockets leave them off. To do this, TransAstra is developing an orbit transfer vehicle known as Workerbee. The body of which can also be used for its asteroid-mining vehicle. But the company has yet to operate any of its technology in space. Still, Sercel says that TransAstra is already making a small amount of revenue from startup contracts for its satellite tugging services and has brought in more than half a million from its Sutter Telescope tech in the form of NASA R&D grants. Our plan is to be revenue positive at every step along the way, while we're building the company and using these near-term businesses to mature the technology. And then as you do that, you have all the

pieces in place to go out and start asteroid mining. Our mining process is three stages. We have to do a vaporization of the material. So we're going to take an asteroid and essentially vaporize it into a cloud of atoms.

And then we're going to ionize it. So we're going to each take that cloud and positively charge all the atoms. And then once we have a whole bunch of positively charged atoms, we can sort them. Astroforge is another early-stage company trying to make space mining a reality.

Founded in 2022 by a former SpaceX engineer and a former Virgin Galactic engineer, Astroforge still believes there's money to be made in mining asteroids for precious metals. We have a limited amount of rare earth elements, specifically the platinum group metals. These are industrial metals that are used in everyday things: your cell phone, cancer drugs, catalytic converters and we're running out of them. The only way to access more of these is to go offworld. Astroforge plans to mine and refine these materials in space and bring them back to Earth to sell.

The key technology that we're developing is our ore processing system. So that system consists of the excavation subsystem that moves the material from the asteroid into the spacecraft. And then there's that refinery piece that really, that extracts the valuable material and removes all the unnecessary material that we can't actually sell on Earth. To keep costs down.

Astroforge will attach its refining payload to off the shelf satellites and launch those satellites on SpaceX rockets. There's quite a few companies that make what is referred to as a satellite bus. This is what you would typically think of as a satellite, the kind of box with solar panels on it, a propulsion system being connected to it. So for us, we didn't want to reinvent the wheel there. The previous people before us, Planetary Resources and DSI, they had to buy entire vehicles.

They had to build much, much larger and much more expensive satellites, which required a huge injection of capital. And I think that was the ultimate downfall of both of those companies. SpaceX really allowed a lot of companies to start in the aerospace world, basically because of the lower cost to access space. So now we can kind of leverage that and really focus on just the technology piece. Ashford says it's raised $23 million in venture capital funding and plans to conduct several test missions before launching its first official mining mission in 2025.

The company is targeting near-Earth asteroids, with a single mission expected to take around two years. Our first mission is to send up a refinery, so we are going to take an artificial asteroid. We are exactly concentrations we've created. So we are going to show that we can extract platinum from this in Zero-G in a vacuum. Mission number two for us is a prospecting mission. This is where we go out to an asteroid.

We make sure we can get to an asteroid, our spacecraft can last for two years, and we can take high resolution images of it to make sure the surface is what we expect it to be. The third mission, we now introduce our extraction arm to that mission. We're going to go out, we're going to take a sample of the asteroid, bring that back to Earth and we'll study on Earth to understand exactly what the concentrations are of that asteroid. Our fourth mission is where we put all those pieces together. We send out our mission with the excavation

arm. We put our processing facility on it, and we repeat those steps in order to get platinum. Like Planetary resources and deep space industries before them, today's asteroid-mining companies face a large number of challenges. The first is uncertainty stemming from the lack of an established international law to govern space mining. At the moment, most space activities are governed by the Outer Space Treaty, which was established during the Cold War. One of the treaty's principles

prohibits the appropriation by individual nations of any celestial bodies, such as the moon or asteroids, and requires that any space exploration in use should benefit the whole of humanity. When it comes to space mining, the whole discussion is about whether Outer Space Treaty allows or bans space mining. One of the interpretations, what we should do with the mined minerals is to share the benefit which is coming of it, and it's not clear whether the benefits should be to the wealth which is emerging from mining the space mineral, or whether mining can provide us some with some scientific knowledge. And the benefit would be just sharing the scientific knowledge. In the absence of an established international law governing space mining, some countries have taken it upon themselves to establish their own. The Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, passed by the Obama administration in 2015, raised eyebrows when it gave property rights to companies for the materials that they mined from asteroids.

Though it stopped short of granting companies ownership of the asteroids themselves. In the time since, Luxembourg, Japan and the United Arab Emirates have established their own space mining laws. But Schmitt says not having an international law for space mining could be enough to dissuade some companies from trying to mine the cosmos. I think that the national laws are not enough for the companies to overcome the legal uncertainty they observe, especially when you ask about the ownership. If they invest money and go to the space and mine something, and the discussion about the ownership is not clear, they don't have certainty that what they are going to mine will be theirs, and they will have full freedom to use the material for whatever they want.

But Sercel says there's already precedent for this. There's limited slots in geostationary orbit where you can put satellites. Once you have the allocated slot and the satellite, other countries and other companies are not allowed to go there and mess with it. So we're certain that when we go to an asteroid, capture it in a bag and mine the resources from it, that we will own those resources. Another challenge is even more basic. Deciding which asteroids to target for mining in the first place. Prior to conducting their own

missions, all early stage mining companies have to go on is existing observation data from researchers, and a hope that the asteroids they have selected contain the minerals they seek. The most challenging aspect of asteroid mining is really the asteroid itself. We have a lot of evidence and observations and scientific data, but we don't actually have a lot of truth knowledge, meaning there's only been a handful of missions that have actually gone to the asteroid. So you can design a perfect system. You can control all of these things. The technology piece, you can control, the operations piece you can control, but you can't control what the asteroid is until you get there.

If the companies do somehow manage to extract the materials they're seeking, the next hurdle is selling them. Theoretically, an influx of precious metals introduced the commodity market on Earth could be enough to crash it. But Astroforge says this is unlikely. When you look at the supply and demand curve for platinum group metals, the total market cap of these metals is measured right around $60 billion. We're talking about bringing back $80 million per mission. So for us it would take quite a bit of

missions to really greatly affect the supply and demand curve as we go forward. For now, commercial space mining remains highly speculative, with companies just starting to test out their tech and business plans. Still, experts believe that some form of asteroid mining will eventually take place. The question is when. I think we will be able to mine an asteroid within the next decade. At the very least, this will be done as

a proof of concept for a mining process, but possibly also include an actual sale of, most likely water, to be then processed into propellant. In terms of the timeline for mining asteroids, for us the biggest issue is funding. So it depends on how fast we can scale the business into these other ventures and then get practical engineering experience, operating systems that have all the components of an asteroid-mining system.

But we could be launching an asteroid mission in the 5 to 7 year timeframe. If we have a developed and working space manufacturing industry, then I can imagine, that asteroid mining will become a valuable option, but it's not a ten-year time period. I believe that we are going to mine in space maybe, maybe 20, 25 years from now.

2023-12-29 14:11

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