Why companies are looking to mine asteroids – Times of India

WASHINGTON: Sending a spacecraft to the far reaches of our solar system to mine asteroids might seem like an improbable ambition best left to science fiction. But it’s inching closer to reality. A Nasa mission is under way to test the feasibility on a nearby asteroid, and a niche group of companies is ramping up to claim a piece of the pie.

Industry barons see a future in finding and harnessing water on asteroids for rocket fuel, which will allow astronauts and spacecrafts to stay in orbit for longer periods. Investors, including Richard Branson, China’s Tencent Holdings and the nation of Luxembourg, see a longerterm solution to replenishing materials such as iron and nickel as Earth’s natural resources are depleted.

Millions of asteroids roam our solar system. Most are thought unsuitable for mining, either because they’re too small, too inaccessible to Earth or because the materials that make up the asteroid have little value. But we know of almost 1,000 asteroids that show potential. Timing is everything, though. The varied orbits of these asteroids mean that many are nearby only once every several years.

The estimated potential value of some of these asteroids — assuming you could completely mine them, and assuming current market valuations — is so substantial as to be barely comprehensible. The most valuable known asteroid is estimated to be worth $15 quintillion, according to Asterank, a database owned by Planetary Resources, a company that aims to mine asteroids. That represents the world’s total gross domestic product (about $80 trillion) 192,283 times over.

There’s a lot we still don’t know about these asteroids, so their estimated values should be taken with a grain of salt. Scientists who study asteroids group them into different categories based on certain shared criteria, including size and shape, and estimate their composition based on samples of similar meteorites. But within each asteroid category, the makeup of individual asteroids will vary, affecting its value to would-be miners.

What we do know about the asteroids, however, gives researchers and companies a good ballpark as more ambitious exploration gets underway. Osiris-Rex, a US National Aeronautics and Space Administration spacecraft, is on its way to a near-Earth asteroid to check out whether it will be viable for extracting water and minerals.

It’s expected to reach the asteroid, Bennu, in December, becoming the first US mission to retrieve a sample of an asteroid and return it to Earth to be studied, said Dante Lauretta, a University of Arizona professor, who is working in conjunction with Nasa as he oversees the mission.

“We’re interested in finding sources of water for furthering exploration,” Lauretta said in an interview. “Anytime you’re involved in space flight, it’s a risky business. We have a lot of technologies to overcome the challenges of navigating a spacecraft around the asteroid.” Bennu comes very close to Earth every six years and scientists estimate that asteroids of its type are made of about 10% iron and nickel.

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