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Mining Asteroids - A New Industry
by Launchspace Staff
Bethesda MD (SPX) May 02, 2012

File image.

This past Wednesday a new company, Planetary Resources (PRI), announced it is serious about searching the cosmos for the first mineable asteroid. Within two years PRI hopes to identify that historic near-Earth object (NEO), presumably soon to be mined for its valuable minerals.

Within minutes of the public announcement media reporters were speculating that such asteroids contain precise metals such as gold and platinum. This kind of reaction is what Hollywood thrives on.

In fact, film Director James Cameron is one of the PRI backers, along with former Google CEO, Eric Schmidt, and current CEO Larry Page. Add to this list Ross Perot Jr. and other heavy hitters and you have a well-funded privately-owned start up.

PRI Co-Founder, Peter Diamandis, of X-Prize fame, said, "Since my early teenage years, I've wanted to be an asteroid miner. I always viewed it as a glamorous vision of where we could go." Many of us have had childhood fantasies such as being an ASTEROID BUSTER, but few of being an asteroid miner.

This begs the question, "Is it easier to mine asteroids than bust them?" In the former case the objective is to create a new source of minerals, and in the latter the objective is to divert large NEOs from destroying life on Earth.

We have already seen several Hollywood variations on how to bust asteroids, but few about mining them. All of these are somewhat dated. So, other than revitalizing a movie genre, how realistic is asteroid mining in terms of commercial viability?

According to PRI, there are over 1,500 asteroids that are as "easy" to get to as the surface of the moon. As a matter of fact, getting to the moon is not easy.

In the 1960s, NASA spent the equivalent of tens of billions in 2012 dollars just to fly three astronauts to the moon, and all we got in minerals was a few pounds of moon rocks with little or no real market value in terms of creating new products.

Even if we sent only robots to the moon, the cost would far exceed the market value of any minerals found there. Getting to a near Earth asteroid is easier than landing on the moon, and in fact, the NASA NEAR mission did just that.

However, getting to an asteroid, "landing' on it, mining it and moving the ore to a space station or to the Earth represents a very complex and expensive space mission.

Once we have succeeded in creating an operational fusion reactor, the moon may become a very valuable source of Helium 3, but until that time, no private endeavor will be able to expend the needed resources on this scale before proving profitability without government funding.

On the other hand, PRI may at least become a motivational tool to generate more interest in US science and technology education. And, that would be much more valuable than actually mining the asteroids.


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