Sunday, May 26, 2024

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For generations, Western space missions have largely occurred out in the open. We knew where they were going, why they were going there and what they planned to do. But the world is on the verge of a new era in which private interests override such openness, with big money potentially on the line.

Sometime in the coming year, a spacecraft from AstroForge, an American asteroid-mining firm, may be launched on a mission to a rocky object near Earth’s orbit. If successful, it will be the first wholly commercial deep-space mission beyond the moon. AstroForge, however, is keeping its target asteroid secret.

The secret space-rock mission is the latest in an emerging trend that astronomers and other experts do not welcome: commercial space missions conducted covertly. Such missions highlight gaps in the regulation of spaceflight as well as concerns about whether exploring the cosmos will continue to benefit all humankind.

“I’m very much not in favor of having stuff swirling 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 seems like a bad precedent to set.”

But for AstroForge, the calculation is simple: If it reveals the destination, a competitor may grab the asteroid’s valuable metals for itself.

“Announcing which asteroid we are targeting opens up risk that another entity could seize that asteroid,” said Matt Gialich, AstroForge’s chief executive.☄️☄️Asteroid mining entered into the doldrums in recent years after two startups proposing to prospect the solar system went out of business in the late 2010s. But now several companies in the United States, Europe and China are taking another stab at the endeavor. Even a congressional committee held a hearing on the subject in December.

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


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