Hardware made in Christchurch will be used in the first deep-space mining mission.
And it’s one that will help shape things back on Earth. Palladium, used in the manufacture of emission-reducing catalytic converters for cars, pacemakers, hydrogen fuel cells and some cancer treatments, is expensive and in short supply - in part because of the Russia-Ukraine war.
US start-up AstroForge plans to go further afield. It plans to extract palladium and other rare platinum-group metals (PGMs) from asteroids and return them to Earth.
And it’s just taken a key step toward that near-future goal with the delivery of an in-space propulsion system made by Kiwi-Dutch company Dawn Aerospace. This week, AstroForge posted a clip showing a successful test firing of Dawn’s thrusters:
One step closer to deep space 🚀 We’re pleased to announce a successful hot fire test of our second mission flight propulsion system. With the help of our partners @DawnAerospace + @OrbAstro, the mission will go to deep space to gain critical information about our target asteroid pic.twitter.com/fq0X3qjxSW— AstroForge (@astroforge) October 18, 2023
The successful “hot fire” – an in-lab demonstration of the firings that will happen on-orbit – was completed last month at Dawn’s Delft, Netherlands office, but the kit was made in Canterbury.
“Most of the components of these systems – tanks, thrusters and electronics – are designed, qualified and manufactured in Christchurch before being shipped to our Delft office for assembly and final system tests,” Dawn’s NZ-based co-founder and CEO Stephan Powell told the Herald.
“While space-based mining may have historically felt like a thing of science fiction, talented teams like AstroForge are making headway in enabling new, space-based technology which has the potential to fundamentally alter the impact of terrestrial mining,” Powell said.
AstroForge founders Matthew Gialich (ex-Virgin Galactic) and Jose Acain (ex-SpaceX) point out that much of the technology is already in place.
Last month, Nasa’s first asteroid samples fetched from deep space were parachuted into the Utah desert by Nasa’s Osiris-Rex spacecraft.
In a seven-year round trip, the US space agency’s craft landed on an asteroid named Bennu, collected soil from its surface then dropped it to Earth in a capsule before speeding off on its next mission.
AstroForge essentially plans to add one extra element to such a mission: processing precious metals in situ after it lands on an asteroid and drills into it - the better to have a lighter load to return to Earth.
“Earth’s resources are running out and traditional mining practices are destroying our planet. With our second mission, AstroForge will become the first private company to ever operate in deep space,” Gialich says.
“By assembling an AstroForge team of elite engineers, scientists and innovators, and partnering with companies like SpaceX, Intuitive Machines, OrbAstro and Dawn Aerospace that are enabling the space economy, we’re merging deep heritage with our novel technology to realise that goal.”
First test flights over next few months
The US firm plans to launch a cubesat, Brokker-1, to trial its zero-gravity extraction technology in November.
Its follow-up, due to launch early next year, will be a larger spacecraft called Brokker-2 - which is being built by UK company OrbAstro with Dawn supplying the propulsion system and other components.
Around April, Brokker-2 will blast off from Earth on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, ridesharing with a lunar lander made by Intuitive Machines.
Brokker-2 will occupy excess space in Intuitive’s “Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle”, and be deployed before the EELV drops its payload to the lunar surface.
Astroforge’s spacecraft will then travel under Dawn’s propulsion system for around nine months to a metal-rich asteroid (the asteroid and its location haven’t been publically named).
It will be an experimental flyby, with the first retrieval test planned for a later date.
“They’re targeting the end of this decade for their first retrieval mission,” Powell said.
Neither of the privately held parties have revealed the value of the contract, but the Dawn CEO said his company aims to work with AstroForge long-term.
Dawn Aerospace is best known for its prototype spaceplane, which has so far made several relatively low-altitude test flights. The plan is for a larger version to ultimately carry small satellites into low-Earth orbit. (Its efforts on that front should be aided by recent announcements. In the first week of October - in what would prove to be one of her last acts as Infrastructure Minister - Megan Woods said $5.4m in funding would go to supporting the laying of a one-kilometre sealed runway at the Tāwhaki aerospace facility on the Kaitōrete Spit near Christchurch. A couple of days later, National pledged to create two new aerospace testing zones in addition to Tāwhaki - although it did not say where, or at what funding levels.)
But Dawn also makes satellite propulsion systems, which already feature in more than a dozen operational satellites launched into space for various clients by SpaceX Falcon 9, European Space Agency Vega and Soyuz rockets. The propulsion systems have evolved into an all-in-one solution that includes thrusters, fuel tanks and control systems.
Before today, the only other customer Dawn had publicly named was Lynk - the US start-up that’s challenging Elon Musk’s Starlink by building its own network of low-Earth orbit satellites. It’s very early days for Lynk, but 2degrees and Spark are among the various telcos worldwide that have signed up for its service that will let people send a text message via satellite when they’re outside normal cell coverage (the service is coming late next year. One NZ has signed up for an equivalent service from Starlink, also due late next year. Voice and data services will follow for both Lynk and Starlink).
Powell says Dawn’s key selling point is that its propulsion systems use nitrous oxide and propylene, a non-toxic, rideshare-friendly combination that gives the high performance required for deep-space missions while removing the handling costs and complexities involved with propellants like the commonly used, highly toxic hydrazine.
It speaks to the continuing diversification of NZ’s space industry, which saw Rocket Lab recently open a new plant making satellite components in Auckland. Peter Beck’s firm will make more revenue from its space systems division than rocket launches this quarter.
Rocket Lab also said this week that the two spacecraft it’s building for Nasa’s Escapade Mars mission have now entered the systems integration phase. Two satellites based on Rocket Lab’s “Photon” platform are scheduled to go into orbit around Mars in 2024, carrying instruments that will study how the red planet’s climate has changed over time.
Chris Keall is an Auckland-based member of the Herald’s business team. He joined the Herald in 2018 and is the technology editor and a senior business writer.