Star Trek Comes of Age: Mining Metals On 'Roids

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You don’t have to be a Trekkie to be enthralled by the idea of mining passing asteroids for metals.

Anyone with a sense of the bizarre or even a good imagination will be intrigued by one of science fiction’s key visions of the future finally, maybe, just possibly, brought to reality. The idea is some way from realization, but the backers not only have deep pockets but also considerable experience in bringing space exploration to commercial success.

Maybe the most exciting aspect of this story, covered by Reuters and the Telegraph among others, is that it is a commercial venture, not the dream-child of a technologically brilliant-yet-cost bloated NASA. Unmatched as NASA’s achievements have been since the 1960s, so too has been their ability to cost overrun; if an idea as wacky as this is ever to make commercial sense, more commercial brains will be required.

Google Duo and Titanic Director Spearheading

Google executives Larry Page and Eric Schmidt and filmmaker James Cameron are among those bankrolling a venture to survey and eventually extract precious metals and rare minerals from asteroids that orbit near Earth, and they among others in the team can at least be said to have experience of managing big-budget ventures.

The company, Planetary Resources, based in Bellevue, Wa., is co-founded by Eric Anderson, founder of Space Adventures — which enables millionaires and billionaires to go on 10-day trips to the International Space Station — and Peter Diamandis, who created the Ansari X Prize competition which awarded $10 million to Scaled Composites in 2004 for launching the first private space flight by a reusable manned vehicle.

The venture will focus initially on developing and selling extremely low-cost robotic spacecraft for surveying missions with a first launch envisioned within two years before developing into asteroid mining — within maybe ten years.

The prize could be substantial, and as resources become more expensive to extract here on Earth, the economics of asteroid mining should improve. According to Reuters, the cost of mining platinum on Earth is rising at 16 to 20 percent per year. Quoting Anglo American, the world’s biggest platinum producer, the paper estimates that about half the world’s production is unprofitable at today’s price of about $1,500 per ounce. Meanwhile, Peter Diamandis, estimates a single asteroid 30 meters (100 feet) in diameter could contain up to $50 billion worth of platinum.

It Ain’t Cheese

So just what are asteroids made of? Good question, and one an upcoming $1-billion Nasa project is setting out to better understand.

The answer is they probably vary, but many are iron-nickel alloys with lesser amounts of heavy precious metals. Interestingly, according to some scientifically referenced data in Wikipedia, all the gold, cobalt, iron, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, osmium, palladium, platinum, rhenium, rhodium, ruthenium, and tungsten mined from the Earth’s crust came originally from the rain of asteroids that hit the Earth after the crust cooled.

The planet’s original quota of these elements was attracted to the core as the Earth cooled billions of years ago, leaving the crust depleted. So near-Earth or passing asteroids are the natural source of such metals for us surface dwellers – the challenge is mining them and returning the metals to Earth profitably.

Truly, this is one of those “big ideas” that may not achieve success anytime soon, but if all else fails — that is to say, what if the venture proves an economic failure? — well, it will make great material for a Hollywood movie that would likely be better than “Armageddon.”

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