Asteroid mining made headlines in the spring of 2012 when a new company called Planetary Resources announced it would begin exploration to mine asteroids in 18 months. Slate.com reveals the plan is audacious, yet possible, thanks to some very interested entrepreneurs.
What’s the process?
First, the company plans to find possible mining targets. Planetary Resources claims there are 1,500 asteroids that can be reached easier than Earth’s moon. These near-Earth objects will be studied closely to see if there is water, iron, nickel and even platinum within the proto-planets. Then, further study will be done on asteroids believed to be valuable. Mining would commence after the asteroid is brought into Earth’s orbit using water found on the asteroid to make rocket fuel. Asteroids could also be put into lunar orbit as a safety measure or even brought down to the moon’s surface where they can be processed.
What are the benefits?
An entire new industry would be opened up that could be worth trillions of dollars. Metals could be mined and even processed in outer space, saving time and energy on Earth. When resources are made in space for space exploration, there is no need to create huge rockets that need lots of fuel to put cargo into orbit. In other words, space exploration would be cheaper if the materials for such ventures came from space.
One spin-off, according to the Slate article, is that Planetary Resources wants to deploy rocket refueling stations throughout the inner solar system. Doing so reduces the size of rockets and can increase speeds of missions to the outer solar system. Frozen water locked in asteroids is the key to this proposition.
Another benefit is that Planetary Resources hopes to find more asteroids closer to Earth. If any pose a threat to the planet, plans can be made accordingly.
What about the asteroid belt?
NASA indicates there are thousands of larger asteroids in between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Those are harder to get to, but once orbiting rockets and fuel depots are in place, the need for Earth-based launches to the asteroid belt will become obsolete.
How long will it take before humans see asteroid materials being processed?
It may take at least five years before the network of exploratory telescopes is ready to begin seeking out targets for mining. It may take 10 to 15 years before raw materials are mined. The technology already exists for such ventures, the only obstacle is that machines must be built for industrial-scale mining in outer space. Several NASA scientists are working with Planetary Resources. Mining can be done with lasers, such as the one on the Mars Curiosity rover now on the surface of another planet.
Although it will take a lot of initial investment capital, asteroid mining can accelerate the exploration of space exponentially. Once the new industry begins, asteroid mining will become the norm rather than the exception.