How to Mine an Asteroid: Planetary Resources' Plan

I'm very excited about Planetary Resources' mission for mining asteroids.  It has the potential for so much benefit for us on Earth as well as in space.  The August 2012 issue of Popular mechanics has an awesome article outlining their plan.  I'm going to hit some highlights here, but I definitely recommend reading the entire article.

Step One: Find a likely asteroid.  PR intends to use a small fleet of orbiting telescopes.  Because they have a more local mission--the solar system as opposed to say, Hubble's Deep Space mission, they are smaller and cheaper to make. In addition, they intend to rent time on them for other researchers to recoup their expenses.

Step Two: Assess the rock:  Once they have a likely rock, they need a closer look at its composition.  Since the most likely candidates are going to be small and have negligible gravity (PopMech says they will dock more than land), they ar taking a different approach. Instead of a penetrator craft (remember Tuesday's lesson?) they are using a LIBS, or laser-induced breakdown spectorscopy system.  Essentailly, they vaporize part of the rock with a laser and and study the light emitted by the plasma, which tells them what elements it contains.  Cool, huh?

The craft that does this will also likely place a radio transmitter on the asteroid, a way of staking PR's claim.  Honestly, I think the politics of commercial interests claiming space "real estate" and the profits thereof are going to be at least as challenging as the technological aspects of the mission.  However, they have to be addressed if we are to progress.

Step Three: Dig 'er Up!:  To mine water, which will be vital in space not only for survival but also fuel, they'll need to mine carbonaceous chondrite asteroids.  These are generally crumbly, so a fleet of mining bots will swarm the asteroid, clamp on and basically scrape and slurp, with vacuum bots to suck up any dust or debris kicked up by the process.  Mining for metals is harder, and they are still working out the details on how to do this and be cost-effective.

Step Four:  Sell It!  This, too is a rub, as the best clients would be people in space, especially for the water.  However, there are enough possible uses for asteroid-mined metals that PR sees a future.  As PopMech states: "A 500-ton asteroid with a .0015 percent platinum metals--a common percentage--would have three times the richest concentration found on Earth.  Platinum is used in everything form computers to cars to medical equipment, and with a greater and cheaper supply, there are bound to be more uses. 

Ambitious?  Sure!  Doable?  The scientists and entrepreneurs at Planetary Resources think so--and if they are right, they'll be making one of the many small steps that lead to the next Big Leap for Mankind.

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