24 Apr 2012

Planetary Resources craft captures small water-rich asteroids for extraction of resources
Planetary Resources' craft captures small water-rich asteroids for extraction of resources. Credit: Planetary Resources

"There be gold in them hills" or so the saying goes.  In this case it's platinum and other precious metals on asteroids and the moon.  Two start-up companies are attempting to enter the science realm and make a business and entertainment out of the idea that these sources in space can be mined and brought back to Earth. Such metals can be used in cell phones and other electronics. Water that can be extracted also can be used for space missions.

Mining Asteroids

Planetary Resources, backed by such names as James Cameron and Google executives Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, will hold a press conference today at 1:30 p.m. ET to announce what it calls a "new space venture with a mission to help ensure humanity's prosperity." 

"The company will overlay two critical sectors - space exploration and natural resources – to add trillions of dollars to the global GDP. This innovative start-up will create a new industry and a new definition of natural resources," the press conference details states. 

The first task for the Bellevue, Washington Planetary Resources will be putting a telescope into Earth orbit within two years to survey near-Earth asteroids that contain precious metals and water.  Within four years, mining could begin on the objects according to company co-founder Eric Anderson.  Mining operations would be enabled with groups of unmanned spacecraft.  There are no plans to extend missions to the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter at this time, however.

According to company co-founder Peter Diamandis, it has been estimated that a single 100-foot-long asteroid could contain $25 billion to $50 billion in platinum.

"There are precious metals in near-infinite quantities in space. When the availability of these metals increase, the cost will reduce on everything including defibrillators, hand-held devices, TV and computer monitors, catalysts; and with the abundance of these metals we’ll be able to use them in mass production," Diamandis said.

Mining objects in space makes more environmental sense, according to Anderson.  "Ripping up the Earth’s crust not only is terribly intrusive from an environmental point of view, but it’s actually really expensive and really hard. Why not go to the source?" Anderson stated.

Planetary Resources also hopes to use hydrogen and oxygen from water on the asteroid to make fuel for space missions as well.  This water can also be used to help astronauts stay hydrated and grow food and also provide shelter from dangerous radiation as a shield.  Asteroids could be set up as "gas stations" for spaceships headed to Mars.

Of the nearly 8,900 known near-Earth Asteroids, about 100 or 150 are water-rich and actually easier to reach than the surface of the moon.

Mining on the Moon

Another company, Moon Express of Mountain View, California said they have recruited five top lunar scientists to join its board to make plans to mine metals on the moon. 

Due to the asteroids striking the moon throughout time, there are deposits of heavy metals on the surface of the moon.  Alan Stern, the chief scientist at Moon express stated in a press release, "There is clear evidence of significant platinum group metals on the moon from Apollo samples and lunar meteorites, and we've discovered evidence for localized hotspots that will help us choose landing sites to practice mining techniques."

"I believe that the presence of water and ease of mining platinum group elements on the Moon's surface far, far trumps arguments that NEO's (asteroids) are energetically easier to get samples from than the moon," according to Stern in the press release.

Moon express will send robots to the moon for mining operations.

The Tech-Stew Take Home

This is another great step in the movement of private companies becoming involved in space and realizing the potential such moves can hold.  The next steps for these companies would be to show that they can get it done and begin putting things into motion.  Not only can local asteroids provide a great source of mined precious metals, it could also be used to fuel even beefier spaceships, such as ones with nuclear engines, particularly nuclear fusion reactors.  However, we are still a long ways off from proving that we can produce relatively efficient energy from fusion.  Despite this, mining on the moon could yield helium-3 would be useful for future nuclear fusion as it becomes viable.   The sun emits helium-3 which the moon has absorbed for billions of years.

Even the asteroid belt alone has been estimated to have mineral wealth of $100 billion for every person on Earth according to "Mining in the Sky" from 1996.  Though the value may be slightly less now due to the population growth over 15 years.  The same author, John Lewis states that "The near-Earth asteroid population could easily support 10 to 40 times the population of Earth, with all the necessary resources to do that."

The benefits from mining the metals themselves will certainly make an impact here on Earth with the cost and production of electronics as well.  And missions to these asteroids can serve as training grounds for possible future missions that may involve deflecting asteroids which are in a path to strike the Earth.

Source:  Bloomberg, Reuters, Space.com
Image:  Planetary Resources

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