Sending robots to planets, moons and meteors to mine rare space resources will soon be more than the subject of science fiction movies. A Chinese startup, Origin Space, has announced plans to identify, extract and return off-earth resources.
The privately-owned Beijing-based group, specialising in off-earth resources, is scheduled to launch its ‘space mining robot’, NEO-1, in November.
The craft, a small 30kg robot, is intended to be launched into a 500km altitude sun-synchronous orbit by the now well-known Long March rocket.
Origin Space co-founder, Yu Tianhong said NEO-1 would not be mining on its maiden voyage. Rather, NEO-1 will perform several tasks to test and demonstrate its functions.
”Spacecraft orbital manoeuvres, simulated small celestial body capture, intelligent spacecraft identification and control are just some of the small, space-bound craft tasks,” said Yu.
The concept of mining off-earth resources is not new. China and the United States have expressed interest in the practice for some time, with President Donald Trump signing an executive order this year which incentivises the mining of moon and asteroid resources.
Origin Space was founded in 2017 after the Chinese government had opened the industry to the private sector in 2014.
The asteroid mining sector has a potential trillion-dollar value estimate.
Origin Space has joined other western companies such as Planetary Resources which has been established for more than a decade. Planetary Resources suffered funding drawbacks and was sold to blockchain firm, ConsenSys, in 2018.
Japan, meanwhile, has this year raised funding for a programme of its own, a sign that traditional tech players are taking off-earth resource acquisition seriously.
The viability of mining off-earth resources was highlighted recently when Jim Bridenstine, a NASA administrator, said the agency would purchase materials, including lunar rocks, from commercial companies. However, logistics and unknown variables such as the cost of extraction remain major barriers to entry, said Brian Weeden, director of Program Planning for the Secure World Foundation.
After the NEO-1 launch, Origin Space will follow up with a flurry of other launches including the ‘Little Hubble’ project which will observe and study near-earth objects whilst in orbit.
Origin Space has laid out plans for NEO-2, the follow-up mission to NEO-1. This project will see a craft sent to a near-lunar orbit and, eventually, make a hard lunar landing. The company, however, remains cautious, with Yu saying the plans for a mission to the moon are not yet complete.