Thinking Tech

Here's how a startup plans to extract gold from asteroids

Posting in Energy

Planetary Resources, funded by some of the world's richest investors, hopes to create a multi-trillion dollar industry.

Recent evidence suggests that, during earth's humble beginnings, a violent hailstorm of asteroids supplied not only the ingredients neccesary for life, but also all the essential resources to sustain it.

In fact, it's likely that all the gold, iron, platinum and wealth of other precious minerals essential for economic and technological prosperity came originally from the rain of asteroids that pelted the Earth shortly after the crust cooled. The problem now, though, is that inital gift of rich natural resources is on track to be exhausted within 50-60 years, according to a report in New Scientist.

One way to replenish the earth's reserves, proposed by a team of distinguished scientists, is to simply go straight to the source. To accomplish this, Peter Diamandis, creator of the reknowned X-Prize Foundation, and Eric Anderson Chairman of the Board of the Space Spaceflight Federation, have formed Planetary Resources, a venture to bring "the natural resources of space within humanity’s economic sphere of influence," according to the company's web site.

The company is backed by a group of industry big wigs that include Filmmaker James Cameron, former Presidential Candidate Ross Perot and Google co-founder Larry Page. Ultimately, it is their hope that in due time "water from asteroids will fuel the in-space economy, and rare metals will increase Earth’s GDP."

But just how much money being pumped into the economy are we talking about here? Well, for some perspective, Astronomer John S. Lewis postulated that a relatively small metallic asteroid with a diameter of one mile contained more than $20 trillion worth of industrial and precious metals.

[To learn more about natural resources of the extra-terrestrial varierty, check out Lewis´ book “Mining The Sky: Untold Riches From The Asteroids, Comets, And Planets.”]

While tapping into this treasure trove of valuable metals will involve more than just handing pick axes and a shovels to a bunch of space-bound astronauts, it's apparently very doable, according to Astronomer Phil Plait. On his blog, Bad Astronomy, Plait laid out a four step plan based on specific details provided to him by Planetary Resources President and Chief Engineer Chris Lewicki.

Here's a brief sketch of how asteroid mining will work:

1. The first phase of the plan begins with the launching of a series of small space telescopes to scout potential near-earth asteroids. The first of these, the Arkyd 101, is already being built and is scheduled to hitch a ride aboard a rocket sometime near the end of 2013. Eventually, scientists hope to send the telescopes directly to prospective asteroids to gather samples and at the same time get a closer look.

2. Once a target asteroid is identified, the spacecraft would be used to collect "volatiles" such as water, oxygen and nitrogen. These can be stored in depots, which can be thought of as supply stations for astronauts on lengthy missions in outer space. The price of a bottle of water may be about a dollar on earth, but costs as much as $20,000 per liter to get water into space.

3. Mining for precious metals is where it gets really tricky. Scientists may decide to send a equipment to start mining on-site or to tow the rock to a more manageable location such as an orbit around the moon or directly back to earth.

4. Making a profit from this experiment is the one aspect of this whole ambitious operation that still needs to be hashed out. But the founders believe that once they show how feasable the idea is, business possibilities will materialize. Just laying a foundation for such an industry is the foremost goal.

Plait, despite his reputation as a rigorous skeptic, gave a suprisingly strong endorsement of the project. He even enthusiastically stated, "I love this idea. Love it."

However, some may argue that the whole notion of asteroid mining sends the wrong message regarding how we should go about managing our natural resources. Instead of looking to devour more, shouldn't we be focusing on how best to make due with what we have and practice some restraint? In fact, there has recently been some promising research into ways we can even recycle such materials. For instance, last week, Honda announced a breakthrough that would allow for the recycling of rare earth metals from the nickel-metal hydride batteries for its used hybrid cars.

Still, technological progress is moving at such a rapid pace that tapping into otherworldly sources may soon become more of an imperative than an option. Also, let's not forget that any hope for advancing renewable energy technologies such as solar panels and wind trubines relies heavily on the availability of terbium, yttrium, dysprosium, europium and neodymium -- all rare earth metals that are quickly being depleted.

But what are your thoughts? The forum is yours.

Side note: Had to bump the vehicle of the future post to tommorow. Sorry, but this is a big story.

(via Discover)

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Tuan Nguyen

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Tuan C. Nguyen is a freelance science journalist based in New York City. He has written for the U.S. News and World Report, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC News, AOL, Yahoo! News and LiveScience. Formerly, he was reporter and producer for the technology section of ABCNews.com. He holds degrees from the University of California Los Angeles and the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure