Mining Asteroids? A Lofty Quest!

Apr 21, 2012 By Deepa Gopal
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What is James Cameron up to next? After recently returning from the depths of the Mariana trench -- the first solo person to reach the deepest point on Earth, Cameron now has his eyes set on space. 

The Titanic movie director along with two Google billionaires, a veteran space astronaut and Microsoft's chief architect has embarked on a new venture. Planetary Resources, Inc. is the name of the company. While the official announcement will take place next Tuesday, the new endeavor aims to merge the areas of space exploration and natural resources. It is an ambitious quest -- to mine asteroids for raw materials like iron, nickel and other rare earth metals! 

Sounds like science fiction, doesn't it? However, the idea of mining asteroids has been around for a while in scientific circles as a way to supplement Earth's resources, and further the exploration of our solar system. Whether and how it can be done, is the big question.

A Gold Mine Of Minerals

Asteroids and comets are considered remnants from the giant cloud of gas and dust that condensed to create the sun, planets, and moons some 4.5 billion years ago. Today, most asteroids which are nothing but chunks of rock, orbit the sun in a tightly packed belt located between Mars and Jupiter. According to scientists, these rocks could not come together to form a planet due to Jupiter's strong gravity.

While most asteroids are restricted to the belt, a few zip through our solar system -- sometimes too close to Earth for comfort. These are known as Near-Earth asteroids. The smaller ones that enter our Earth's atmosphere are known as meteorites.

How do scientists know what the asteroids are made up of? Using telescopic spectroscopy, they measure the light reflected from the asteroid's surface to find out what might be there. In addition to iron, nickel and magnesium, scientists think water, oxygen, gold and platinum may also exist on some asteroids.

Isn't asteroid mining expensive?

Asteroid mining could take several forms, such as sending a robotic spacecraft or humans in a spacecraft to an asteroid. NASA has unveiled plans to to deploy an unmanned spacecraft, the OSIRIS-Rex, which they hope will arrive at a near-Earth asteroid designated 1999 RQ36 in 2020. The vessel will be equipped with a robotic arm built to pluck samples from the asteroid. Japan's Hayabusa mission has been the closest attempt so far at landing a probe on an asteroid -- the lander and the sample collection mechanisms failed to work.

Imagine actually landing a spacecraft on a planetary body as small as an asteroid, taking off again with materials from the surface, and returning to Earth. It is an expensive plan, and the economics of it would make the materials too expensive to use on Earth. However, as our Earth's population grows and resources become critical, this may very well be the future. 

Planetary Resources Inc. is pioneering a visionary idea. Who knows -- perhaps some of you may even end up working in this fascinating field! Here is a video of the concept from another study.