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The first secret asteroid mission won't be the last

The first secret asteroid mission won't be the last

For generations, Western space missions have largely taken place outdoors. We knew where they were going, why they were going there and what they planned to do. But the world is on the brink of a new era in which private interests dominate such openness, with huge sums potentially at stake.

Sometime in the coming year, a spacecraft from American asteroid-mining firm Astroforge may be launched on a mission to a rocky object near Earth's orbit. If successful, it would be the first fully commercial deep-space mission beyond the Moon. However, Astroforge is keeping its target asteroid a secret.

The secret space-rock mission is the latest in an emerging trend that astronomers and other experts don't welcome: commercial space missions conducted in secret. Such missions highlight gaps in the regulation of space flight as well as concerns about whether exploration of the universe will continue to benefit all mankind.

“I'm not in favor of having a spacecraft wandering around the inner solar system without anyone knowing where it is,” said Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Massachusetts. “It feels like it sets a bad precedent.”

But for Astroforge, the calculation is simple: If it reveals the destination, a competitor could grab the asteroid's valuable metals for itself.

“Announcing which asteroid we're targeting opens up the risk that another entity could seize that asteroid,” said Matt Zialich, chief executive of Astroforge.

Asteroid mining slowed down in recent years after two startups that proposed solar system prospecting went out of business in the late 2010s. But now several companies in the United States, Europe and China are taking another step forward in this effort. Even a Congress Committee held a hearing on this topic in December,

The renaissance has been sparked by a new wave of commercial space exploration, driven primarily by SpaceX, the company founded by Elon Musk that flies reusable rocket boosters and drives down the cost of reaching space.

With increasing activity, privacy is also increasing.

In 2019, the Israeli-built commercial Beresheet lander tried to land on the Moon but crashed. On board, was kept secret until after the unsuccessful landing a few thousand tardigrades, micro animals supplied by the nonprofit Ark Mission Foundation. The accident raised concerns about potentially contaminating the Moon with sentinels and led to an investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration.

More recently, suborbital spaceflight firm Virgin Galactic withheld the identification of people aboard its spaceplane until after the mission was completed, a practice not previously seen with human spaceflight. And some satellites travel through space with many other orbital vehicles, known as Rideshare Missionhas also been kept secret.

“We are increasingly seeing launches where we don't know which satellites they are that were deployed until some time later,” said Dr. McDowell, who maintains A public database of spacecraft in orbit,

For missions beyond Earth, there is no legal prohibition against keeping the destination of a deep space mission secret as Astroforge wants to do, said Michelle Hanlon, a law professor specializing in space at the University of Mississippi.

“We don't have any real process for these kinds of deep space missions,” he said, because “there's no licensing process” in the United States.

But complex issues may arise if, for example, multiple asteroid miners arrive at the same asteroid.

“There needs to be some kind of transparency here,” Dr. McDowell said. He said that while there was a United Nations requirement for space agencies and companies to disclose their orbits and trajectories in space, “for solar orbiting objects this is generally ignored.”

The lack of penalties “should spark discussion among regulators,” he said.

AstroForge's mission, Odin, will be the second spacecraft sent to space. Its first in April, Broker-1, was a microwave-sized machine that weighed about 25 pounds. The goal of that mission was to practice refining metals in the space environment. However, the company has faced problems with the spacecraft said on 11 December, Astroforge is in a “race against time” to accomplish the task before Brocker-1 is lost.

Odin, on the other hand, weighs much more at 220 pounds. AstroForge plans a robotic mission to the Moon in 2024 by Intuitive Machines, a NASA-sponsored company, and is being launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. The launch date has not been decided yet.

During the trip to the Moon, the plan is to release Odin and go into deep space beyond lunar orbit. According to Astroforge, within a year, the spacecraft will fly past the mysterious asteroid, taking photos and looking for evidence of metal in the process.

Astroforge's target is suspected to be an M-type asteroid. These are believed to be fragmented fragments of the cores of failed planets and may contain valuable platinum-group metals, one of which wide range of uses Which includes health care and jewellery.

No spacecraft has ever visited such an asteroid before, although NASA's Psyche mission, launched in October, is on mission to a possible M-type asteroid between Mars and Jupiter, also known as Psyche. . However, it will not arrive until August 2029, making Astroforge the first time to visit such an object.

So far, AstroForge has raised $13 million from investors. A full-fledged mining mission would require huge investments. But if the company is successful, money can be made. On Earth, mining the metals present on M-type asteroids can be difficult and expensive. For example, iridium sells for thousands of dollars per ounce.

The business case for extracting metals from asteroids has not always been so clear. It is difficult and expensive to return the material to Earth; NASA's OSIRIS-REx mission returned only an estimated half a pound of material from an asteroid named Bennu in September. Estimated $1.16 billion,

Astroforge is confident in its financial prospects. “We hope we can return the material at a higher margin,” Mr. Zialich said. “We built our business model by leveraging ride share and partnerships to make each mission as economically viable as possible.”

Akbar Whizzin, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute, said he understands the motivation to keep the asteroid a secret. He previously worked for Planetary Resources, a mining startup never reached an asteroidAnd it, too, was skeptical about its goals.

“It's a business venture,” he said. “You don't tell people, 'I know where the gold is.'”

But some scientists believe asteroid miners should be more specific about their finds. M-type asteroids give humanity a window into the chaotic early Solar System 4.5 billion years ago, when objects frequently collided together and planets were born. That means anything discovered by AstroForge could be scientifically valuable, said Stephanie Jarmak, a planetary scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

“I'm a big supporter of open science,” said Dr. Jarmak, who is also its project scientist NASA Science Explorer, “We've never visited an M-type asteroid before, so there's a lot we can learn.”

It involves “heating processes that were ongoing early in solar-system history,” said Andy Rivkin, an astronomer at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory who led NASA's DART mission to find an asteroid to impact in September 2022. “Insights of”.

“We will never be able to reach the center of the Earth,” he said. “So visiting these types of objects will give us information that we can extrapolate to learn more about the Earth and how it can be compared to different planets.” can be applied.”

Benjamin Weiss, a planetary scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and deputy principal investigator for the Psyche mission, said the true nature of M-type asteroids is still unclear. Although it “has always been the dominant assumption” that M-type asteroids were metallic, he said, we didn't know for sure.

In 2010, the European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft Asteroid flew past Lutetia, Scientists found that it was not as metallic as suspected. Dr. Weiss said this would make anything Astroforge discovers more meaningful.

Mr Zialich said that except for the asteroid, the Astroforge would be transparent. “We are not keeping our mission a secret,” he said. “We plan to share photos.”

Although AstroForge isn't disclosing its target asteroid, it may be possible to get an idea of ​​where the company is going.

About 30,000 near-Earth asteroids are known, giving AstroForge many potential targets. But the company has said that its target is to be less than 330 feet in size and can be reached within a year of launch. This means it must cross Earth's orbit or at least pass close to it. It is also suspected that the asteroid is of the M-type, which is brighter than other asteroids due to its potential metal content.

These clues narrow the list of potential targets to “about 300 asteroids”, according to Mitch Hunter-Scullion, chief executive of Asteroid Mining Corporation, a potential AstroForge competitor in Britain.

Dr. Jarmak further refined the potential targets by taking into account brightness and size. “We have a list of 14 items,” he said.

Among them, particularly promising is 2010 CD55, which is about 270 feet wide, reasonably bright – hinting at metallic content – ​​and accessible from Earth in the time frame of Astroforge's launch date.

Mr. Zialich would not verify or deny that suggestion.

“We don't want to publicly confirm our target asteroid,” he said.

He said Astroforge was considering several targets. “We are actively tracking several asteroids that would be viable for our ODIN mission as we move our launch date,” he said.

Even if the asteroid could not be identified before launch, Dr. McDowell said it might be possible for amateur astronomers on Earth to track the spacecraft once it reaches space and figure out where it is going.

“There are some practical issues,” he said, “but I certainly think there will be interest in tracking it.”

https://static01.nyt.com/images/2023/12/27/multimedia/27sci-asteroid-03-wqlv/27sci-asteroid-03-wqlv-facebookJumbo.jpg

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