Now is the time to start mining asteroids—Mineral exploration has already begun! More than 10,000 near-Earth asteroids (NEAs) have been discovered in the last decade. In the next 15 years, 500,000 NEAs are expected to be discovered by telescopes now under construction. Many NEAs (15%) are easier to reach than the moon. Many are abundant sources of valuable minerals that we can use in space and that we need on Earth: the U.S. now imports 100% of 18 industrial minerals. Terrestrial sources for some industrial minerals may be depleted in decades.
The return of the Hayabusa (mission animation; mission overview), bringing mineral samples from near-Earth asteroid (NEA) Itokawa, marks the onset of The Age of Asteroid Mining: Extraterrestrial resource development has begun. Hayabusa faced and overcame many challenges. It successfully returned to Earth on 13 June 2010, plummeting through the atmosphere in a fiery display, and is now scheduled to appear in its own movie.
Just as a silken thread, tied to a stone and thrown across a deep gorge, makes it possible to deploy a string, a rope, and eventually a load bearing bridge, the knowledge base that has been created by the JAXA team of engineers will inform all future efforts to mine asteroid mineral wealth. They will forever be the first to have completed the loop: From Earth to asteroid and back.
Future NEA sample-return missions are planed by the engineers at JAXA (Hayabusa 2), as well as several other groups in the European Space Agency and at NASA. (NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, launched in September 2007, aims for two main belt asteroids.) Missions to analyze, monitor, respond to, and, if necessary, move potentially hazardous NEAs (PHAs), such as Apophis, have also been planned. One such mission is projected to cost less than $20 million. The Hayabusa mission to Itokawa cost $170 million. To date, over 7,000 NEAs have been identified. Of these, 15% are easier to reach than the moon. New telescopes, such as Pan-STARRS and the LSST (generating “terabytes of data/night”), are expected to detect half a million more (500,000) over the next 15 years. This will significantly increase awareness of both Earth-impact risks and business opportunities.
Why mine asteroids? To get rich. To increase humanity’s real wealth. To industrialize the inner solar system, and eventually build off-planet habitats. Many asteroids are rich in industrial-use metals. The platinum-group metals (PGMs) are particularly attractive due to their high cost, limited terrestrial availability (South Africa supplies 75% of the world’s platinum and over 80% of its rhodium; Russia supplies most of the rest, 14% of the platinum and 12% of the rhodium), and their relative abundance in certain classes of asteroids. A single, 500 m NEA, of a common type, contains tens of billions of dollars worth of PGMs, as well as tons of iron, nickel and other useful materials.
The U.S. Geological Survey reports that the United States now imports 100% of 18 industrial minerals. The National Academy notes that the platinum group metals—used in catalytic converters and hydrogen fuel cells—are “most critical” for industrial development, with many other often unrecognized uses. Some projections show that terrestrial platinum reserves may be depleted within decades.
If you want to be a 21st Century billionaire: Mine asteroids. If you want to live in space: Mine asteroids. If you want to sustain industrial society on Earth: Mine asteroids.
Abundant Planet is a public benefit, 501(c)3, California corporation. We promote the development of asteroid resources and their profitable use in space and on Earth.
This website presents some of our work, including a book, The Wealth of Asteroids, background articles, a series of public policy letters, and a collection of charts. We invite your participation and ask for your support.