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22 April 2012
Mining asteroids – plans to be announced

Miners in the sky? An announcement about an asteroid mining company seems imminent. It’s the initiative of a group of American space experts and investors, and they are to make a statement this coming Tuesday (24 April) about plans to form a new mining company. The backers of the new company – to be called Planetary Resources – include two of the top figures in Google, along with film maker and explorer James Cameron.

The driving force is the commercial value of the metals that can be won. If we think of even a small 2-kilometre-wide example like Asteroid 1986A, then a calculation made in 1994 suggests the metal that could be extracted from it would be worth in today’s prices close to $90 trillion dollars. That’s nearly six times the total US national debt.

The value would come from platinum in particular. It’s one of the earth’s rarest metals, with only a few hundred tonnes being produced each year. But it’s much in demand as a catalyst for various processes, for instance in the catalytic converters of cars and also in fuel cells. It’s currently trading at around 1575 US dollars an ounce.

Another attraction would be nickel, much used in alloys, magnets and batteries, and there would also be a big supply of cobalt and iron.

But on the other hand the costs would also be huge, and particularly the cost of space travel, to launch rockets to an asteroid and back and to carry men and machines and eventual ore.

This however is where new developments play a key role. New types of rockets are coming onstream which will substantially reduce today’s launch costs per tonne of cargo.

One of the co-founders of the new company is Peter Diamandis, one of the key people who’ve developed the idea of space tourism. He’s the creator of the X-Prize Foundation, whose $10 million competition stimulated the efforts to develop private spaceflight. There are now other X-Prizes, each designed to kickstart development in other fields, some in space and others in medicine and cleaning pollution. Earlier this year he gave a hint of the asteroid mining plans in an interview with Forbes Video.

The case for asteroid mining has been made for some time, with one of its advocates, Prof. John Lewis of the University of Arizona put the arguments in a book Mining the Sky. He described the process in an excerpt from a History Channel series.

Also in Arizona is Prof. William K. Hartmann, of the Planetary Science Institute. who made the calculation of the economic value of asteriod 1986 DA. he combines his scientific research on the original of the planetary system with painting and writing books like The Traveler's Guide to Mars. This shows the planet as an explorer might see it, a place of high mountains and barren plains, winding conyons and towering volcanoes.