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Establishing footholds on “near-Earth” asteroids and drilling them for all they are worth may prove to be the next chapter in human space exploration. On Friday, asteroid 2012 DA14 came within a celestial blink of smashing into the Earth.
But for a growing group of prospectors with an intense and entrepreneurial interest in such orbiting space rocks, this relatively tiny traveller — about 45 metres in diameter — wasn’t worth a passing glance.
The scientists, financiers — and movie moguls — now involved in serious and deep-pocketed schemes to mine asteroids are searching for far bigger fish. “You start digging into a 50-metre rock and before you know it, you’re out the other side,” says York University astronomer Paul Delaney.
“To mine (asteroids) profitably, I think you’ve got to be talking hundreds of metres in diameter to have enough raw materials once you’ve established yourself on the surface,” Delaney says.
As science fictional as it might sound, establishing footholds on “near-Earth” asteroids and drilling them for all the metals, silicates or water they are worth may prove to be the next chapter in human space exploration.
“We are currently in the process of making our first spacecraft that we will be launching in two years’ time,” says Chris Lewicki, president and chief engineer of Planetary Resources, by far the biggest player in the field.
“These will identify and characterize the asteroids that we would be interested in going to,” says Lewicki, who says actual mining missions are slated to begin as early as the next decade.
Lewicki, formerly a flight director for many of NASA’s robotic Mars missions, was in Toronto this week to speak at a terrestrial mining conference.
His company boasts the big-league backing of Google executives Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, X Prize entrepreneur Dr. Peter Diamandis and moviemaker James Cameron.
But don’t think actor Bruce Willis leading a roughneck mining crew to divert an asteroid from Earth in the 1998 blockbuster Armageddon.
Lewicki says Planetary Resources intends to concentrate solely on robotic mining missions to begin with. (Human crews would be exposed to lethal radiation blasts working on asteroids.)
While Friday’s near-miss asteroid was relatively puny, Delaney says finding sufficiently large asteroids to mine is the least of the Seattle company’s problems.
“There’s a phenomenally large number in the inner solar system, in fact a dangerous number in the inner solar system,” he says.
“The numbers that we often cite are about 1,000 asteroids that are approaching a kilometre in diameter that have Earth-crossing capabilities.”
These so-called “Trojan” bodies spend parts of their solar circumnavigations within the orbital distances the Earth traces around the sun.
To our planet’s salvation, most of their journeys don’t bring the rocks into the Earth’s orbital pathway.
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