|WORLDVIEW: How to Mine an Asteroid|
By Chris Lewicki
President of Planetary Resources and former NASA Flight Director Chris Lewicki outlines his plans to harvest precious metals in space.
How is it possible to mine an asteroid?
It’s becoming more possible every day. It’s a combination of knowing about the asteroids themselves – where they are and what resources they have on them – and, of course, having the technology and the need to capture those resources.
We’re interested in the near-Earth asteroids – not the ones that are between Mars and Jupiter, but ones that actually come quite close to Earth’s orbit. We’ve discovered almost 10,000 – many of them in the last 10-15 years – and are making a rendezvous and prospecting spacecraft that will tell us a bit more about the surface of each individual asteroid.
When we’re talking about recovering water, there are a lot of different techniques we might employ, some as simple as distilling an asteroid using the sun’s energy, evaporating the water, and then condensing it back down and using it for transport.
When we talk about getting more advanced materials – like the iron, nickel, cobalt, and platinum group metals that are on asteroids – there are a lot of technologies that could be used from an Earth standpoint today, but we’re convinced that we’ll find a better way to take advantage of the unique environment that we have in space.
Do you foresee these asteroids being mined by robots? By human beings?
We certainly foresee that this will be an entirely robotic activity, with the humans who are taking part being comfortable back here on Earth. We’ve used robots to explore almost the entire solar system, and this area of technology is progressing rapidly.
Why mine asteroids?
Resources are what really drove us to settle the American continent and drive into the West. Without the resources that were where we were exploring, we wouldn’t have been able to continue past the Eastern Seaboard.
In many ways, we see the same opportunity in space. Resources are going to be the economic driver and the economic engine for moving human activity off the surface of the planet into space.
Is your idea to eventually bring material back to Earth for use?
The end goal is to bring back the platinum group metals. We of course have plenty of water here on Earth, and we have nickel, iron, and cobalt in fair abundance. But the platinum group metals are the rarest elements on Earth, and are used commercially, industrially, medically, and in the automotive industry. They’re actually almost a thousand times rarer than what are frequently referred to as the “rare earth elements.”
By using the water resources of space to create fuel depots and way stations, and to power our transport around the solar system and to and from asteroids, we should be able to bring this group of elements back to Earth. By doing so, we’ll find all kinds of new applications for these elements, because they’ll be more abundant than they are today.
Is there a danger in bringing material from asteroids to Earth? When humans first went to the moon, they were quarantined, and couldn’t even take moon rocks because they were so afraid of what they might bring back.
When we first landed on the moon, our space program was barely 10 years old. We didn’t know a lot about the solar system, or what to expect when we were going to the moon and back. The quarantine that the Apollo 11 astronauts were in was substantially shortened as the space program developed.
NASA and other space agencies have come up with specific policies for how to handle this, and we’ve brought several other samples back from the solar system. So, it’s certainly something to be attentive to, but we know enough about the solar system now that it’s not a threat, or anything to be particularly concerned about.