SpaceX subsidiary Intuitive Machines said it will use the spare capacity on one of its moon probe launches to send AstroForge’s first asteroid-mining spacecraft into deep space.
Intuitive’s second Nova-C Moon lander is scheduled to launch no later than (NET) Q4 2023 on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. The IM-2 lander is the primary payload but is expected to weigh only about 1.9 tons (~ 4300 lbs.). To take advantage of the missile’s performance that the relatively light payload leaves on the table, Intuitive Machines chose to include a secondary payload adapter (ESPA) loop located below each lander. This has given companies like AstroForge the chance to launch a journey into high Earth orbit, deep space, and the Moon for what is likely to be an unbeatable price.
The Brokkr-2 spacecraft of AstroForge, built by UK startup Orbital Astronautics, will attempt to become the first private vehicle to search for resources on an asteroid. It is also the third transport payload announced for Intuitive Machines’ IM-2 mission.
We’re excited to release these missions and many more in the future. More info on this year’s launch: https://t.co/MSR61V8Lh7
– AstroForge (ForgeAstro) January 24, 2023
Coincidentally, the main purpose of the second transport payload is the IM-2 It will be announced It is searching for resources in space. It’s not about asteroids, but NASA’s 200-kilogram (440-pound) Lunar Trailblazer spacecraft designed to find, characterize, and map water-ice resources on the Moon. This map could help future missions explore the possibility of turning lunar ice into commodities such as breathable oxygen or rocket fuel.
The challenges of such a concept are severe, but a rocket fuel depot located on the lunar surface could greatly increase the performance of future lunar landers. Fuel depots in lunar orbit can also help boost spacecraft further and faster to other destinations in the solar system.
The first announced IM-2 transfer payload was OrbitFab’s Tanker-002 spacecraft. It’s unclear if OrbitFab is on its way to flying Tanker-002 in late 2023, but the spacecraft is supposed to be the first geostationary fuel tanker ever launched. The Colorado startup has already won a $13.3 million contract from the US Army to refuel satellites in geostationary orbit, 36,000 kilometers (22,250 miles) above Earth’s surface. Tanker-002 is likely intended to support the refueling mission.
The spacecraft is designed to carry a few hundred pounds of hydrazine monofuel, enabling it to extend the useful life of several multi-million dollar satellites by several years. Together with the IM-2, it will launch the Falcon 9 Tanker-002 on a flight path on the lunar surface. But thanks to the collaboration of startup GeoJump, instead of entering lunar orbit, Tanker-002 will zip around the moon to slow itself down. This lunar slingshot would allow the depot to efficiently enter geostationary orbit, where it could begin refueling spacecraft.
Brokkr-2 is the second of two AstroForge spacecraft scheduled for launch in 2023. The first, Brokkr-1, will head into low Earth orbit (LEO) as early as April 2023 for SpaceX’s seventh Falcon 9 launch. Once in orbit, it will attempt to show Technology developed by AstroForge for refining platinum ore in microgravity conditions. Brokkr-2 will then visit an asteroid and search for platinum resources. If enough platinum is discovered, Bloomberg reports that AstroForge will send a third mission to demonstrate the ability to land on the asteroid. Early in 2025, AstroForge’s fourth mission will be the first to attempt to land, collect ore, turn that ore into platinum, and return the precious metal to Earth.
AstroForge has raised $13 million to date. Unlike failed asteroid mining startups Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources, the new company intends to increasingly exploit off-the-shelf hardware and services to keep its costs as low as possible. In theory, this would allow it to focus most of its resources on developing the unproven technology required to gather and improve space resources.
Finally, the primary payload for the IM-2 Nova-C Moon lander is a pair of NASA instruments designed to drill into the lunar surface and analyze regolith for volatiles. Also known as PRIME-1, the mission will be NASA’s first serious In Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) exploration on the Moon.
The mission is a kind of microcosm of the future of space utilization, which may focus heavily on ISRU and refueling to expand the capabilities of chemical-powered rockets and spacecraft. The Lunar Trailblazer will map water resources on the lunar surface. Brokkr-2 will attempt to mine an asteroid for extractable metal. IM-2 will test technologies that can help extract resources from the Moon. Tanker-002 will be an important step forward for commercial fuel storage, which could eventually create markets for space resources.
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