WASHINGTON — Two startups recently raised a total of $25 million in funding rounds to advance plans for lunar and asteroid missions, showing continued interest in space startups despite broader market uncertainty.
Lunar Outpost announced on May 24 that it had raised a $12 million funding round from several investors. Explorer 1 Fund led the round with participation from Promus Ventures, Space Capital, Type 1 Ventures and Cathexis Ventures.
Lunar Outpost, based in Golden, Colo., will use the funding to continue development of a line of robotic lunar rovers. The company is working on its first rover, the Mobile Autonomous Prospecting Platform (MAPP), which will launch on Intuitive Machines’ IM-2 lunar lander 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, CEO of Lunar Outpost, in an interview. While MAPP rovers weigh 10 to 20 kilograms each, the company envisions a larger rover weighing 100 to 200 kilograms capable of operating for years on the lunar surface.
“We already have Earth-specific prototypes of this class,” he said. “What it allows us to do is classify these technologies in space and line up a mission or two.”
Cyrus said the company plans to have the first of the largest robotic rovers ready to fly by late 2023 or early 2024. Lunar Outpost plans to announce a third rover mission to the moon this summer, he said, but declined to say whether it would be for the larger rover or another MAPP rover.
Besides developing lunar rovers, Lunar Outpost has also developed a line of environmental monitors called Canary for terrestrial applications. This line is profitable, and Cyrus said the company would consider using some of the funding to expand these monitors into new markets.
“We weren’t in a position where we had to raise funds. We didn’t need money to survive,” he said, choosing to work with these investors to grow the business and leverage their technical and business expertise. “We chose to raise funds from these investors because they provide substantial value to help us get to the moon in a sustainable way.”
Lunar Outpost also won a NASA award in 2020 to collect samples and transfer them to NASA. Lunar Outpost only offered $1 for its samples and last August received a milestone payment in the form of a check for 10 cents, presented to Cyrus by the NASA Administrator Bill Nelson at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs.
“That 10-cent check helped activate the $12 million check,” Cyrus said, “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, Calif., announced on May 26 that it had raised $13 million in funding round led by Initialized Capital, with investments from Seven Seven Six, EarthRise, Aera VC, Liquid 2 and Soma.
The startup, which is part of the Y Combinator business accelerator, plans to take a fresh look at asteroid mining, using proprietary technology it says can enable the mining of D-group metals. platinum from near-Earth asteroids.
Past companies, such as Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources, attempted to mine asteroids several years ago, but failed to get past Earth orbit and early rounds of funding. Matt Gialich, co-founder and chief executive, said in an interview that lower launch costs and greater 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, slated for launch in early 2023, will place a six-unit cubesat developed by British company OrbAstro into orbit on a SpaceX rideshare mission. This spacecraft will carry what Gialich calls “asteroid-like material” from which the company will attempt to extract platinum group metals using its technology. He declined to go into specific technology details.
A second mission, launching as early as summer 2023, would fly over an asteroid to test the spacecraft and instruments and identify potential targets for subsequent mining missions. On a “green light” schedule with no failures or other setbacks, he said, “we are five years away from launching this [mining] mission and five and a half years after doing our extraction.
He insists the company has learned from the failures of past mining ventures by focusing on smaller, cheaper spacecraft. “All these guys want to build a 600-meter-long, multi-billion-dollar 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.”
A former employee of an asteroid mining company is skeptical. “It seems to me that the history of asteroid mining is repeating itself,” Elizabeth Frank, a planetary scientist who previously worked at Planetary Resources, tweeted May 31st. She raised several issues, including difficulties in extracting platinum group metals from asteroids, difficulty in identifying these metals using existing remote sensing instruments, and lack of experience working with metallic asteroids.
“I really wish them the best – they have their work cut out for them,” she concluded.
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