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STEM

Mining for Asteroids

While driving to a meeting, I was listening to my local National Public Radio (NPR) station on Thursday, April 26, 2012.There were several topics discussed during the radio show, The Conversation, with guest host Deborah Wang. The one that piqued my interest is Can Mining For Asteroids Help The Economy? Wang reported that a local group of high-tech moguls are planning to mine asteroids. 

Comet Lovejoy (DEC 21, 2011)

I asked myself, how do you mine asteroids? And why would anyone want to do that? For starters, what is an asteroid? And what is inside of one to make someone want to spend that kind of money? According to NASA, an asteroid is a relatively small, inactive, rocky body that orbits the Sun. By comparison a:

  •  comet is a relatively small, at times active, object whose ices can vaporize in sunlight forming an atmosphere (coma) of dust and gas, and sometimes, a tail of dust and/or gas.
  • meteroid a small particle from a comet or asteroid orbiting the Sun.
  • meteor is the light phenomena which results when a meteoroid enters the earth’s atmosphere and vaporizes. A meteor is also referred to as a shooting star.
  • meteorite is a meteoroid that survives its passage through the Earth’s atmosphere and lands upon the Earth’s surface, i.e. what’s left over after the meteor strikes the earth.

So, asteroids are big space rocks that orbit the sun. Near Earth Objects (NEOs) are comets and asteroids that can be found in the Earth’s neighborhood. These space rocks are varying sizes from smaller than 25 meters (about 82 feet), to 1 kilometer (a little more than ½ mile) to 5.4 kilometers in diameter and the size of the largest known potentially hazardous asteroid, Toutatis. According to NASA, the gigantic asteroids occupying the orbit between Mars and Jupiter, pose no threat to Earth, however, they can be as large as 940 kilometers (about 583 miles) across.

Now that we have established what an asteroid is, what’s inside of these huge space rocks?

Asteroid Composition

Vesta Sizes Up with Other Asteroids

Before we delve in the composition of asteroids, a little bit of light needs to shine on their origin – where do asteroids come from? The answer depends on your beliefs about the origins of the universe. Scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) believe that asteroid and comets are remnant debris from the solar system formation process some 4.6 billion years ago. The giant outer planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune) formed from an agglomeration of billions of comets and the left over bits and pieces from this formation process are the comets we see today. [Ref. 1]

Likewise, today’s NEOs are the bits and pieces left over from the initial coming together of the inner planets that include Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars. As the primitive, leftover building blocks of the solar system formation process, comets and asteroids offer clues to the chemical mixture from which the planets formed some 4.6 billion years ago. For sure, our Earth has minerals. It’s been proven that some of the other planets, comets, and asteroids do as well. Asteroids and comets are also thought to have formed by breaking away from planets and stars.

Individual asteroids are classified by their characteristic spectra, with the majority falling into three main groups [Ref. 2]:

  • C-type (carbon-rich)
  • S-type (stony composition)
  • M-type (metallic composition)

The emission spectrum of a chemical element or compound is the spectrum of frequencies of electromagnetic radiation emitted by the element’s atoms or the compounds molecules when they are returned to a lower energy state. [Ref. 2}

The physical composition of asteroids is variable and in most cases poorly understood. NEO asteroids vary widely in composition. Each asteroid contains water, metals, and carbonaceous materials in various amounts. Common metallic metals include iron, nickel, and cobalt, sometimes in incredible quantities. Platinum, a precious rare metal has also been found. Other volatiles, such as nitrogen, CO, CO2, and methane, exist in quantities sufficient to warrant extraction and utilization. [Refs. 1, 2, and 3] JPL reports that examination of meteorites suggests that the average near-Earth asteroid has a higher concentration of precious metals, such as platinum, than the richest known ore on Earth.

According to Planetary Resources [Ref. 3], the project’s research arm, water from asteroids is a key resource in space.  Water can be converted to rocket propellant, or supply the needs of humans living off Earth, and can completely change the way space is explored.  A single water-rich 500-meter-wide asteroid contains 80 times more water than the largest supertanker could carry and could provide, if the water were converted to rocket propellant, more than 200 times the rocket fuel required to launch all the rockets ever launched in human history. This would certainly offer value and interest to a potential investor.

Mining Asteroids

On the surface, the concept of mining asteroids may appear far-fetched. However, if one considers the research work that NASA has already done over the last 20 years, the concept is in-line with the logical progression of future space exploration. It was less than 20 years ago that a spacecraft took the first close-up photo of an asteroid. Now a series of bold and exciting missions is taking us on a journey to explore the small worlds of our solar system, up close, for the first time.

Dawn Orbiting Vesta

NASA’s Discovery Program gives scientists the opportunity to dig deep into their imaginations and find innovative ways to unlock the mysteries of the solar system. Since the program’s inception in 1992, many scientists have turned to the small worlds of our solar system, with seven missions to investigate asteroids, comets, and dwarf planets, seeking answers to age-old questions: Where did we come from? Where are we going? Where and how could life evolve in the solar system? As keys to the past and possible resources for the future, the small worlds are ancient treasure chests, filled with riches that have remained hidden throughout history – until now. [Ref 1]

As an example, the Dawn Mission has received official confirmation that 40 extra days have been added to its exploration of the giant asteroid Vesta, the second most massive object in the main asteroid belt. The extension allows Dawn to continue its scientific observations at Vesta until August 26th. [Ref 4]  “We are leveraging our smooth and successful operations at Vesta to provide for even more scientific discoveries for NASA and the world.” said Robert Mase, Dawn project manager based at JPL in Pasadena, CA. “This extra time will allow us to extend our scientific investigation and learn more about this mysterious world.”

The comets and asteroids that are potentially the most hazardous because they can closely approach the Earth are also the objects that could be most easily exploited for their raw materials. It is not presently cost effective to mine these minerals and then bring them back to Earth. However, these raw materials could be used in developing the space structures and in generating the rocket fuel that will be required to explore and colonize our solar system in the 21st century. Whereas asteroids are rich in the mineral raw materials required to build structures in space, the comets are rich resources for the water and carbon-based molecules necessary to sustain life.

Formerly called Arkyd Astronautics, Planetary Resources announced in a press release on April 24, 2012 and subsequent news interviews that it will mine asteroids. [Ref 5] The company has experience designing space equipment for space exploration and is now planning to look for water and precious metals. Planetary Resources co-founders Peter Diamandis and Eric Anderson explain to CNN’s Soledad O’Brien, host for the morning show, Starting Point that it’s possible to do this in an inexpensive way.

“More than ever before, you can build very small, very capable, low-cost robotic spacecraft that can go out to near-Earth asteroids,” Diamandis says. “Many of them have resources that are valuable both in space and down here on Earth.”

Anderson says a lot of what can be mined will depend on what kind of asteroid it is, and depending on the mineral they want to extract they could use different methods.

High Tech Investors

Just as interesting, if not more so, are those who have already signed on as investors in this project. Planetary Resources, Inc. reports that it is being financed by industry-launching visionaries including Google CEO Larry Page and Ross Perot, Jr., Chairman of Hillwood and The Perot Group, who are committed to expanding the world’s resource base so that humanity can continue to grow and prosper. [Ref 6]

K. Ram Shriram, Founder of Sherpalo, Google Board of Directors founding member and Planetary Resources, Inc. investor: “I see the same potential in Planetary Resources as I did in the early days of Google.” Charles Simonyi, Ph.D., Chairman of Intentional Software Corporation and Planetary Resources, Inc. investor: “The commercialization of space began with communications satellites and is developing for human spaceflight. The next logical step is to begin the innovative development of resources from space. I’m proud to be part of this effort.”

Other notable investors and advisors include, film maker and explorer James Cameron; General T. Michael Moseley (Ret.); Sara Seager, Ph.D.; Mark Sykes, Ph.D.; and David Vaskevitch.

For sure, there’s gold, platinum, iron, and other minerals in NEOs. There’s a plan, perhaps half-real, and still part dream of how to capture these minerals to build space structures or fuel rockets. So, what’s left to know? Perhaps who actually owns the asteroids and other NEOs in space would be a good place to begin.

References:

1. NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, www.jpl.nasa.gov

2. Wikipedia Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emission_spectrum

3. Planetary Resources, http://www.planetaryresources.com.

4. Discovery News, Dawn Gets More Time to Explore Vesta, April 19, 2012,
http://discovery.nasa.gov/news/index.cfml?ID=1063

5. Mining Asteroids for Water and Platinum Planetary Resources, on CNN, http://startingpoint.blogs.cnn.com/2012/04/24/mining-asteroids-for-water-and-platinum-planetary-resources-co-founders-peter-diamandis-and-eric-anderson-say-it-can-be-a-reality-soon/, April 24, 2012.

6. Planetary Resources News Release, http://www.planetaryresources.com/2012/04/asteroid-mining-plans-revealed-by-planetary-resources-inc/

Photos: All photos are courtesy of NASA.

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About Vi Brown

Vi is principal and CEO of Prophecy Consulting Group, LLC, an Arizona firm that provides business and engineering services to private and public clients. Prior to establishing her consulting practice in 2001, Vi worked with Motorola, Maricopa County Government, Pacific Gas & Electric, CH2M Hill, and Procter & Gamble. As an adjunct faculty member, Vi teaches undergraduate calculus classes and graduate level environmental courses. She is also a professional speaker.

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