The Commercialization of Space Mining

Technology Author: Qinqie He, Katherine Jan 18, 2023 10:04 PM (GMT+8)

This article focuses on the commercialization of the space mining industry. Specifically, the article mainly analyzes this complex issue through the in-depth case study of Space Origin, with unique insights from the industry expert.

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In 2009, the movie "Avatar" was released, and the story of going to the planet Pandora to mine sowed the seeds of space mining, which refers to the extraction of raw materials from asteroids and small planets, for countless audiences. Today, it is not an unattainable fantasy out of a sci-fi movie. Instead, mining various resources beyond Earth is rapidly approaching technological and economic viability. However, one must remember that most proposals for the space program and development are restricted by the high cost and inadequate commercialization. Only by overcoming the financial obstacle will space mining operate at a much larger scale than the scientific digs. Regarding this issue, EqualOcean sat down with Su Meng, the founder and CEO of Origin Space, to tackle the problem.

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Background 

 Founded in 2019, Origin Space is China's first and currently only space resource mining enterprise. Origin Space believes that expanding the boundaries of human civilization is an inevitable trend in the development of civilization. How to effectively use space resources, reduce the cost of the space industry, make a large-scale space economy possible, and make the field of resources no longer limited to the Earth will become an opportunity and mission for the development of human civilization.

In less than 3 years since its establishment, Origin Space has achieved multiple meaningful milestones, creating several 'firsts' in China and the world: 

 In June 2021, Origin Space launched "Yangwang-1". It is the world's first commercial optical\ultraviolet space telescope constellation, China's first visible/U.V. light space telescope, and currently the only large-field ultraviolet space probe in orbit around the world. After repeated performance evaluation, it was awarded the official space telescope number by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) Minor Planet Center, making it the first telescope certified in Asia besides the European and American space telescopes.

In April 2021, NEO-X Space Mining Robot was successfully launched. It is the world's first satellite dedicated to mining technology for space resources. NEO-01 has verified several technologies applicable to low-Earth orbit space garbage removal, asteroid resource mining, extra-terrestrial planet defense and other fields.

The commercialization of Space Origin 

Space mining is no longer a science fantasy concept. However, excavating and delivering minerals from space is highly challenging due to expensive costs. According to Planetary Resources Inc., an asteroid-mining company founded by Google's Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, each space mining mission would cost $50 million to $100 million shortly, resulting in huge financial burdens and implementation difficulties. The scenario worsens when most space investments' return period is quite long. Additionally, aerospace companies face long delivery cycles and high customization requirements, making standardization and large-scale manufacturing difficult.

According to Dr. Su, Low cost, industrialization, and standardization are all inevitable processes of space activities. Origin Space embodies the development and utilization of space resources. The core logic is that the future low-cost, large-scale space industry and space economy will involve utilizing such space resources. With this strategic judgment early on, the use cases we viewed as relevant for the space economy, for instance, maintenance of spacecraft in orbit, and removal of abandoned spacecraft and space garbage, are all realized through utilizing space resources. As a result, Space Origin's deployment is based on the direction of standardization, industrialization, and scale.

 The development of every technical field must be combined with the commercial landing and the market to produce more significant influence and value on society, and the generation of such value itself will lead to the injection of capital and the development of the positive cycle of the industry itself, so this is an inevitable process. Space Origin has deep accumulation and rapid growth in all five stages of asteroid mining (finding, exploring, landing, mining, and returning). It is confident to compete internationally for every piece of relevant technology at each stage. By combining the competitive advantage with the capital market for the use case scenarios, Space Origin is solving the users' pain points and problems. 

 Additionally, Space Origin did excellent work in space debrief removal and traffic management. Space Origin is the only commercial company in the world that made building a space web trail operational, enabling Space Origin to help other commercial companies or national entities secure their assets in space. This process naturally generates value, and this value generation completes the closed loop of commercialization. 

Lessons learned and China's catching up. 

The top players of commercial companies that carry out asteroid mining are mainly concentrated in North America and Europe. Major international players and space agencies in the space mining market include Deep Space Industries (U.S.); Planetary Resources (U.S.); Moon Express (U.S.); ispace (Japan); Asteroid Mining Corporation (U.K.); Shackleton Energy Company (U.S.); Kleos Space (Luxembourg); TransAstra (U.S.); OffWorld (U.S.); SpaceFab.US (U.S.); National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA, U.S.); European Space Agency (France); Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (Japan); Russian Federal Space Agency (Russia).

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The United States is the front-runner due to its ambitious Artemis Program and multiple industry-supporting policies. For example, the U.S. has adopted the world's first space resource law, recognizing the property rights of private companies and individuals to materials gathered in space. The United States is not alone. Luxembourg and the United Arab Emirates are racing to construct legal frameworks to clarify rules on ownership, liabilities and responsibilities, hoping to encourage investor confidence with business-friendly legal frameworks. Meanwhile, Russia, Japan, India and several European countries reportedly make space development a national priority. 

China's journey of commercialization has been short time. For example, the United States started to complete the transformation of commercialization in the early 1990s. It took 30 years, and now what most people see is SpaceX. The world's first space resource development and utilization company, Planetary Resources, was established 10 years ago in 2012. Nevertheless, China now views space technology development as a national strategy, challenging U.S. economic and security importance in space.

From a smaller perspective, the initial success of Origin Space, or initial progress, to be more exact, is heavily dependent on some mistakes made by companies in Europe and the United States in the past few years. Having witnessed these mistakes, Origin Space learned to avoid them when following, and that's how it achieved being the first company in the world to realize those visions. Given its late start, China has yet to gain the top position in commercial aerospace. Origin Space has achieved several "firsts" in the world already because this industry is just starting, so we can become one of the leading players on a global scale. Dr. Su views this as a significant opportunity, as when everyone is looking for it, industry insiders can look far together, and the industrial system is not far behind. 

Future Opportunities: 

Although uncertainties remain high, space mining promises to accelerate space exploration significantly and bolster more profound knowledge of operating in space environments. EqualOcean believes that only technological advancements coupled with continuous exploration of new commercial models would reduce the costs of asteroid mining and achieve the abovementioned goals.

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 Additionally, increasing mergers, collaborations, and partnerships between major market players and supporting space technologies on the global front will generate new opportunities for the space mining market.

About the Interviewee:

Su Meng is the founder and CEO of Origin Space. He received his Ph.D. in Astrophysics from Harvard University and Bachelor in Physics from Peking University. Since 2016, he has been an Associate Professor at the Department of Physics of the University of Hong Kong and the Deputy Director of the Space Research Laboratory.