SpaceX customer Intuitive Machines says it will use the spare capacity of one of its lunar lander launches to send startup AstroForge’s first asteroid-finding spacecraft into deep space.
Intuitive Machines’ second Nova-C lunar lander will launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket no earlier than (NET) Q4 2023. The IM-2 lander is the primary payload, but is expected to weigh only about 1.9 tonnes (~4300 lb). To take advantage of the rocket performance left on the table by the relatively light payload, Intuitive Machines chose to include a secondary payload adapter ring (ESPA) under each lander. That gives companies like AstroForge the chance to hitch a ride to high Earth orbit, deep space, and the Moon for a likely unbeatable price.
Built by British startup Orbital Astronautics, AstroForge’s Brokkr-2 spacecraft will aim to become the first private vehicle to search for resources on an asteroid. It is also the third rideshare payload announced for Intuitive Machines’ IM-2 mission.
We are excited to launch these missions and many more. Learn more about this year’s launches: https://t.co/MSR61V8Lh7
— AstroForge (@ForgeAstro) January 24, 2023
Coincidentally, the main target of the second IM-2 rideshare payload be announced is the search for resources in space. It’s not concerned with asteroids, but NASA’s 200-kilogram (440 lb) Lunar Trailblazer spacecraft is designed to find, characterize and map water ice sources on the moon. That map could help future missions explore the possibility of converting lunar ice into raw materials such as breathable oxygen or rocket propellant.
The challenges faced by such a concept are extreme, but a rocket propellant depot on the lunar surface could significantly improve the performance of future lunar landers. Propellant depots in cislunar orbit could also help propel spacecraft farther and faster to destinations elsewhere in the solar system.
The first IM-2 rideshare payload to be announced was OrbitFab’s Tanker-002 spacecraft. It’s unclear if OrbitFab is on track to fly Tanker-002 in late 2023, but the spacecraft is slated to become the first geostationary propellant depot ever launched. The Colorado startup has already won a $13.3 million contract from the US military to refuel satellites in geostationary orbit, 36,000 kilometers (~22,250 miles) above the Earth’s surface. It is possible that Tanker-002 is intended to support that refueling mission.
The spacecraft is designed to carry several hundred pounds of hydrazine monopropellant, potentially extending the life of multimillion-dollar satellites by several years. In addition to IM-2, Falcon 9 will launch Tanker-002 to a lunar orbit. But thanks to the cooperation of startup GeoJump, instead of orbiting the moon, Tanker-002 will swing around the moon to slow itself down. That slingshot from the moon will allow the depot to efficiently move into geostationary orbit, where it can begin refueling spacecraft.
Brokkr-2 is the second of two AstroForge spacecraft scheduled for launch in 2023. The first, Brokkr-1, will enter low Earth orbit (LEO) as early as April 2023 during SpaceX’s seventh Falcon 9 rideshare -launch. Once in orbit, it will attempt to demonstrate the technology AstroForge has developed to refine platinum ore under 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 prove it can land on the asteroid. As early as 2025, AstroForge’s fourth mission would 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 plans to exploit increasingly capable off-the-shelf hardware and services to keep costs as low as possible. In theory, that will allow it to focus most of its resources on developing the unproven technology needed to collect and refine space-based resources.
Finally, the IM-2 Nova-C lunar lander’s primary payload is a pair of NASA instruments designed to drill into the lunar surface and analyze the regolith for volatiles. Also known as PRIME-1, the mission will be NASA’s first serious exploration of in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) on the moon.
The mission is a kind of microcosm of the future of space use, which could focus heavily on ISRU and refueling to expand the capabilities of chemically powered rockets and spacecraft. Lunar Trailblazer will map the moon’s water resources. Brokkr-2 will attempt to search an asteroid for extractable metal. IM-2 will test technologies that could help extract resources from the moon. And Tanker-002 will be a major step forward for commercial propellant depots, which could eventually create markets for space resources.