NASA Contracts Out Asteroid Mining

atari asteroidsAS A CHILD of the ‘70s I grew up on a heady diet of sci-fi and optimism. My sci-fi source was 2000AD comics, which promised flying cars, domed cities, and Judge Dredd plus of course, space travel.

It’s now 2014 and domed cities are the stuff of painful Stephen King TV dramas. The only flying cars available are just embarrassing, and our efforts at space travel are at best pitiful. I won’t even mention the dire Judge Dredd movies we’ve had to date.

This could soon change as NASA has contracted two private companies to mine asteroids. It’s all pretty exciting stuff and could signal a move towards opening up space for ordinary people like you and I.

The analogies between air travel and space travel are powerful. Back in the 1920s, aviation was the plaything of the military, thrill seekers and the rich. When in 1927, the first flight across the Atlantic from the US to Europe finally happened, it sparked a revolution. Air travel became a viable business proposition. Nowadays, flying overseas is a lot like catching a particularly cramped bus with bad food.

The huge costs and complexities associated with space travel have also seen it remain the stuff of governments.

Space is becoming more attractive to entrepreneurs. A handful of private firms such as Space-X are already venturing beyond earth. The contract between NASA, Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources signals the beginnings of a commercial interest in space.

The significance of this could be bigger than huge.

At the moment, everything needed for space missions comes from earth. This is expensive and scarce cargo space limits space missions.

Mining asteroids to supply space missions could see space travel become far less expensive.

There’s plenty there for the taking. Most asteroids lie in a colossal ring between Mars and Jupiter.

Estimates have it that this belt of space rocks holds at least 200 asteroids larger than 100 kilometers in diameter. There is also thought to be at least 750,000 asteroids larger than 1km in diameter and millions of smaller rocks. Comets are also there and could contain water, gas and organic compounds. All told, the material in the asteroid belt is approximately the same mass as earth’s moon. That’s a lot of minerals.

Demand for minerals on earth may be big but the viability of asteroid mining will initially revolve around supplying space missions.

This isn’t exactly rocket science. It costs around US$17-$20 million per ton to get anything into orbit. If mining asteroids can beat that price then we could be on the brink of our first inter-planetary mineral boom.

Mining in space should also be kinder to the environment. Instead of destroying earth’s fragile ecosystems, minerals are instead mined away from earth.

Supplying space missions with materials from asteroids should also see space missions becoming less reliant on the tiny amounts of materials launched from earth. In theory, it could even mark the beginning of an indefinite human presence in space.

Another side benefit will be the mapping of the asteroid belt. This could also lead to a greater awareness of near earth objects, including rogue space rocks such as that which scientists say wiped out dinosaurs.

Now all we need is for NASA to contract Judge Dredd movies out to a decent director. PAT PILCHER

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