$5.4 Trillion Dollars-Worth of Asteroid
Posted by Cheryl Rutledge on 8/11/2015 3:40:16 PM
Alexander Collen, Taylor Jackson, and Kenneth P. Green
Observers of the space mining industry have recently had their attention drawn towards a lucrative asteroid containing high concentrations of platinum. According to RT, asteroid 2011 UW158 contains approximately 90 million tons of platinum in its core, worth an estimated US$5.4 trillion. The asteroid’s dimensions are approximately 1,001m by 452m and it will pass the Earth at an estimated distance of 2.4 million kilometers, 30 times closer than the nearest planet. Discoveries such as these bring to light the growing interest in asteroid mining; its implications and the technologies that will help one day make it feasible.
Asteroid mining company Planetary Resources recently launched its first spacecraft from the International Space Station’s Kibo airlock, on a mission aimed at testing space mineral prospecting technology. According to Planetary Resources, “the demonstration vehicle will validate several core technologies including the avionics, control systems and software, which the company will incorporate into future spacecraft that will venture into the Solar System and prospect for resource-rich near-Earth asteroids.”
The concept may not be as farfetched as it sounds, with the firm being backed by respected financiers and leaders, including Google founder Larry Page, Peter Diamandis of X Prize fame and MIT’s Sara Seager. According to Forbes, the company recently described 2011 UW158 as a “prime example of an asteroid Planetary Resources will aim to mine in the future.”
Potentially accessing these resources could help alleviate issues of mineral scarcity and may create a completely new market for miners and investors. According to NASA, miners are most interested in S-type (containing trace metals) and highly metallic M-type asteroids for today’s commercial purposes. There are, however, still major technological and cost barriers to overcome before asteroid mining can become a reality.
For instance, one of the major hurdles to space mining is the exorbitant cost of building and launching space missions. According to NASA, it costs hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars to undertake such a project. SpaceX’s Elon Musk states that “if one can figure out how to effectively reuse rockets just like airplanes, the cost of access to space will be reduced by as much as a factor of a hundred” and that this is the “fundamental breakthrough needed to revolutionize access to space.”
However, there has been progress. In 2014, SpaceX developed an advanced prototype for the reusable rocket F9R and the rocket was able to land from a height of 1000m using steerable grid fins; perhaps signifying the first step towards reliable reusability and cost reduction.
Although the prospect of asteroid mining still seems to be in its infancy, technological breakthroughs such as these are incrementally increasing the commercial viability of the industry. The costs and risks associated with investing in these technologies may eventually be justified due to the scale of resources potentially available.