For generations, Western space missions have largely been conducted outdoors. We knew where they were going, why they were going there, and what they planned to do. But the world is on the brink of a new era in which private interests override that openness, with large amounts of money potentially at stake.

Sometime next year, a spacecraft from AstroForge, an American asteroid mining company, could be launched on a mission to a rocky object near Earth’s orbit. If successful, it will be the first fully commercial mission to deep space beyond the Moon. AstroForge, however, is keeping the target asteroid a 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. These missions highlight gaps in the regulation of space flight, as well as concerns about whether the exploration of the cosmos will continue to benefit all of humanity.

“I’m not really in favor of things spinning 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.”

But for AstroForge, the calculation is simple: if you reveal the destination, a competitor can seize the asteroid’s valuable metals.

“Announcing which asteroid we’re targeting opens up the risk that another entity could take over that asteroid,” said Matt Gialich, CEO of AstroForge.

Asteroid mining fell into crisis in recent years after two startups proposing to explore the solar system closed in the late 2010s. But now several companies in the United States, Europe and China are giving it another try. Even a congressional committee held a hearing on the issue in December.

The revival 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 getting to space.

With this greater activity, secrecy also increases.

In 2019, the Israeli-built Beresheet commercial lander attempted to land on the Moon but crashed. On board, kept secret until after the failed landing, were a few thousand tardigrades, microscopic animals provided by the nonprofit Arch Mission Foundation. The crash raised concerns about the possibility of contaminating the moon with these robust creatures and led to an investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration.

More recently, suborbital spaceflight company Virgin Galactic has hidden the identities of the people aboard its spaceplane until the missions have been completed, a practice never before seen in human spaceflight. And some satellites travel into space along with many other orbital craft, in what is known as rideshare missionsThey have also been kept secret.

“We are seeing frequent launches where we don’t know which satellites were deployed until some time later,” said Dr. McDowell, who maintains a public database of spacecraft in orbit.

For missions beyond Earth, there are no legal restrictions against keeping the fate of a deep space mission secret, as AstroForge intends to do, said Michelle Hanlon, a space law professor at the University of Mississippi.

“We don’t have a real process for deep space missions like this,” he said, because “there’s no licensing process” in the United States.

But complex problems could arise if, for example, several asteroid miners landed on the same asteroid.

“There needs to be some kind of transparency here,” Dr. McDowell said. He noted that while the United Nations required space agencies and companies to reveal their orbits and trajectories in space, “it is typically ignored in the case of objects in solar orbit.”

The lack of sanctions, he added, “should spark a debate among regulators.”

AstroForge’s mission, Odin, would be the second spacecraft it has sent into space. The first in April, Brokkr-1, was a microwave-sized machine that weighed about 25 pounds. The goal of that mission was to practice metal refining in the space environment. The spacecraft has had problems, however, the company said December 11. AstroForge is in a “race against time” to get Brokkr-1 up and running before it is lost.

Odin, on the other hand, is a much heavier 220 pounds. AstroForge plans to accompany a robotic mission to the moon in 2024 from the NASA-sponsored company Intuitive Machines that will launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. A launch date has not yet been set.

During the trip to the moon, the plan is for Odin to break free and venture into deep space beyond lunar orbit. Within a year, according to AstroForge, the spacecraft will fly by the mysterious asteroid, taking photographs in the process and searching for evidence of metal.

AstroForge is targeting what is suspected to be an M-type asteroid. They are believed to be fragments of failed planetary cores and may be rich in valuable platinum group metals, which have a wide range of uses even in healthcare and jewelry.

No spacecraft has visited such an asteroid before, although NASA’s Psyche mission, launched in October, is on a mission to a possible M-type asteroid, also called Psyche, between Mars and Jupiter. However, it won’t arrive until August 2029, giving AstroForge the opportunity to be the first to visit such an object.

So far, AstroForge has raised $13 million from investors. A full mining mission would require a much larger investment. But riches can be made if the company is successful. On Earth, metals that may be in M-type asteroids can be difficult and expensive to extract. Iridium, for example, sells for thousands of dollars per ounce.

The business case for extracting metals from asteroids has not always been so clear. It is difficult and expensive to return material to Earth; NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission returned just half a pound of material from an asteroid called Bennu in September at a cost of It is estimated that 1.16 billion dollars.

AstroForge is confident in its financial prospects. “We hope to be able to return materials at a high margin,” Gialich said. “We built our business model by leveraging ridesharing and partnerships to make each mission as economically viable as possible.”

Akbar Whizin, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute, said he understood the motivation for keeping the asteroid secret. He previously worked for Planetary Resources, a mining startup that never reached any asteroidand he was also timid about his goals.

“This is a commercial enterprise,” he said. “You wouldn’t tell people, ‘I know where the gold is.’”

But some scientists think asteroid miners should be more forthcoming about what they’re looking for. M-type asteroids give humanity a window into the chaotic early solar system 4.5 billion years ago, when objects frequently collided with each other and planets were born. That means anything AstroForge discovers could be scientifically valuable, said Stephanie Jarmak, a planetary scientist also at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

“I’m a big proponent of open science,” said Dr. Jarmak, also a project scientist at NASA scientific explorer. “We have never visited an M-type asteroid before, so there is a lot we can learn.”

That could include “knowledge about warming processes that occurred early in the history of the solar system,” said Andy Rivkin, an astronomer at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory who led NASA’s DART mission to impact an asteroid in September. of 2022.

“We will never reach the core of the Earth,” he said. “So visiting these types of objects will give us information that we could extrapolate to learn more about Earth and apply it to different planets.”

Benjamin Weiss, a planetary scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and deputy principal investigator for the Psyche mission, said the true nature of M-type asteroids was still unclear. While it had “always been assumed” that M-type asteroids were metallic, he said, we didn’t know for sure.

In 2010, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft passed near the asteroid Lutetia. Scientists discovered that it was not as metallic as suspected. That would make everything AstroForge discovered worthwhile, Dr. Weiss said.

Gialich said AstroForge would be transparent, except for the asteroid itself. “We will not keep our mission a secret,” he said. “We plan to share the images.”

While AstroForge doesn’t reveal its target asteroid, it might be possible to determine where the company is headed.

There are around 30,000 asteroids known to be near Earth, giving AstroForge plenty of potential targets. But the company has said its target is smaller than 330 feet and can be reached within a year after launch. That means it must cross or at least pass close to Earth’s orbit. The asteroid is also suspected to be M-type, which is brighter than other asteroids due to its potential metal content.

According to Mitch Hunter-Scullion, CEO of Asteroid Mining Corporation, a potential AstroForge competitor in Britain, these clues narrow the list of potential targets to “approximately 300 asteroids.”

Dr. Jarmak further refined the potential targets, taking into account brightness and size. “We have a list of 14 objects,” he said.

Of these, particularly promising is 2010 CD55, which measures about 270 feet across, is reasonably bright (hinting at metallic content), and is accessible from Earth in the time frame of AstroForge’s launch date.

Mr. Gialich neither confirmed nor denied that suggestion.

“We don’t want to publicly confirm our target asteroid,” he said.

He added that AstroForge was considering multiple targets. “We are actively tracking several asteroids that would be viable for our Odin mission should our launch date be delayed,” he said.

Even if the asteroid cannot be identified before launch, Dr. McDowell noted that it might be possible for amateur astronomers on Earth to track the spacecraft after it reaches space and determine where it is headed.

“There are some practical issues,” he said. “But I certainly think there will be interest in pursuing it.”