Startups raise millions for lunar rovers and asteroid mining
WASHINGTON — Two startups recently raised a combined $25 million in seed rounds to advance plans for lunar and asteroid missions, showing continued interest in space startups despite broader market uncertainty.
Lunar Outpost announced May 24 it raised a $12 million seed round from several investors. Explorer 1 Fund led the round with participation from Promus Ventures, Space Capital, Type 1 Ventures and Cathexis Ventures.
Golden, Colorado-based Lunar Outpost will use the funding to further development of a line of robotic lunar rovers. The company is working on its first rover, the Mobile Autonomous Prospecting Platform (MAPP), that will go on Intuitive Machines’ IM-2 lunar lander launching in 2023. A second rover will launch on another Intuitive Machines lander in 2024, both part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program.
The funding “allows us to build the next class of robotic systems on the moon,” said Justin Cyrus, chief executive of Lunar Outpost, in an interview. While the MAPP rovers weigh 10 to 20 kilograms each, the company is envisioning a larger rover weighing 100 to 200 kilograms capable of operating for years on the lunar surface.
“We already have Earth-specific prototypes of that class,” he said. “What this allows us to do is space-rate those technologies and line up a mission or two.”
Cyrus said the company looks to have the first of the larger robotic rovers ready for flight by late 2023 or early 2024. Lunar Outpost plans to announce a third rover mission to the moon some time this summer, he said, but declined to say if that would be for the larger rover or another MAPP rover.
Besides developing lunar rovers, Lunar Outpost also developed a line of environmental monitors called Canary for terrestrial applications. That line is profitable, and Cyrus said that the company would consider using some of the funding to expand those monitors into new markets.
“We were not in a position where we had to raise money. We didn’t need the money to survive,” he said, choosing to work with these investors to both grow the business and tap into their technical and business expertise. “We chose to raise the money with these investors because they provide substantial amount of value to help us get to the moon sustainably.”
Lunar Outpost also won a NASA award in 2020 to collect samples and transfer them to NASA. Lunar Outpost offered just $1 for its samples, and last August received a milestone payment in the form of a check worth 10 cents, handed to Cyrus by NASA Administrator Bill Nelson during the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs.
“That 10-cent check helped enable the $12 million check,” Cyrus said, “by showing people that the most respected space agency in the world is looking at resources.”
Another startup raised money for ambitions beyond the moon. AstroForge, based in Huntington Beach, California, announced May 26 it raised a $13 million “seed-plus” round led by Initialized Capital, with investments from Seven Seven Six, EarthRise, Aera VC, Liquid 2 and Soma.
The startup, part of the Y Combinator business accelerator, plans to take a fresh look at asteroid mining, using proprietary technology it claims can enable the mining of platinum-group metals from near Earth asteroids.
Past ventures, such as Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources, attempted asteroid mining several years ago but failed to get beyond Earth orbit and initial funding rounds. Matt Gialich, co-founder and chief executive, said in an interview that decreased launch costs and wider availability of satellite components make it easier and cheaper to develop spacecraft, allowing the company to focus on the specific technologies it needs for asteroid mining.
The company’s first mission, planned for launch in early 2023, will place a six-unit cubesat developed by British company OrbAstro into orbit on a SpaceX rideshare mission. That spacecraft will carry what Gialich calls an “asteroid-like material” that the company will attempt to extract platinum-group metals from using its technology. He declined to go into the details about the specific technology.
A second mission, launching as soon as the summer of 2023, would fly past an asteroid to test the spacecraft and instruments and identify potential targets for later mining missions. On a “green-light” schedule with no failures or other setbacks, he said, “we’re five years away from launching that [mining] mission and five and a half years from actually doing our extraction.”
He insists the company had learned from the failures of past mining ventures by focusing on smaller, less expensive spacecraft. “All these guys want to build a multibillion-dollar 600-meter-long spacecraft and they’ll get a trillion dollars’ worth of metal,” he said, recalling conversations with investors. “We think we can do it by thinking about it very differently.”
One former employee of an asteroid mining venture is skeptical. “It looks to me like the history of asteroid mining is repeating itself,” Elizabeth Frank, a planetary scientist who previously worked at Planetary Resources, tweeted May 31. She raised several issues, including challenges extracting platinum-group metals from asteroids, difficulty identifying such metals using existing remote sensing instruments and a lack of experience working with metallic asteroids.
“I truly wish them the best — they’ve got their work cut out for them,” she concluded.