What do you do when you run out of assets to strip on Earth? Simple: You go into space and start mining there as well. That’s the goal of China-based space startup, Origin Space. To get to that point, however, it’s necessary to carry out some tests in space. With this goal in mind, Origin Space will launch its inaugural “space mining robot,” a small satellite spacecraft called NEO-1, as soon as November this year. The spacecraft will not carry out any mining, but will rather test out various technologies that could be used at a later date.
“The goal is to verify and demonstrate multiple functions such as spacecraft orbital maneuver, simulated small celestial body capture, [and] intelligent spacecraft identification and control,” Yu Tianhong, an Origin Space co-founder, told IEEE Spectrum.
Origin Space was one of the companies that were started up in China’s growing private space sector, after the government decided to open up the industry in 2014. Origin Space is one of many firms worldwide with an eye on fields like asteroid mining, which could prove extremely profitable — provided that they are able to find a way of bringing the mined resources back to Earth without spending far more than the value of whatever they find.
Following its launch of NEO-1, Origin Space plans a lunar project, NEO-2, with a target date sometime in late 2021 or early 2022. Should all go according to plan, this will result in a lunar surface landing. IEEE’s report suggests that NEO-2 could launch into low-Earth orbit, then use onboard propulsion systems to gradually lift itself to higher altitudes until it finally gets into lunar orbit.
Origin Space is not the only entity currently in the business of extracting space resources. Recently, NASA announced that it will pay cold, hard cash to private companies willing to help it gather up space resources in the form of moon dirt and rocks. While the initial NASA payout isn’t close to enough to cover the cost of a launch, it nonetheless signals that the race for space resources is just getting started. With potentially trillions of dollars at stake, this could make the old Soviet vs. USA space race look like a casual competitive jog by comparison.
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