Asteroids are more than hunks of rocks floating in space. They are hunks of rocks that could potentially hold tons of useful minerals.
A company named Planetary Resources officially announced its plans to mine asteroids with unmanned spacecraft earlier this week. In a webcast announcement made on Tuesday, the company detailed its plans to launch a telescope within a few years to pick out potential mineral honeypots floating in space to be remotely mined.
It might sound an as farfetched as a moon colony, but the project has already garnered support from high profile investors such as Google co-founder Larry Page and filmmaker James Cameron.
Why, you ask?
Space mining could yield another source of Platinum-group of metals (ruthenium, rhodium, palladium, osmium, iridium, and platinum) that are important materials used in computers, electronics, and automobiles. These metals can be found planet-side, but Planetary Resources says that they could be found in much greater concentrations and more easily in space rocks than in the Earth’s crust.
Like anything else involving space-travel, there will be many hurdles to overcome and steps before they can start mining an actual asteroid. First, Planetary Resources will launch its prospecting spacecraft, the Arkyd-100 Series, within the next 18 to 24 months. The exploratory satellite will orbit around Earth, picking out potential targets for resource extraction out of the approximately 9,000 known near-Earth asteroids.
After the prospecting phase, which itself will take a couple of years, Planetary Resources says it will begin excavations with swarms of its Arkyd-300 Series spacecraft. But the company says there are too many variables to give a firm timeline on when the extraction phase would begin.
Beyond providing Earth’s population with a “sustainable source” of precious metals, the project could help future space exploration. According to the company, these asteroid extraction sites could be used as watering and refueling way-stations for deep-space exploration.
“Accessing a water-rich asteroid will greatly enable the large-scale exploration of the solar system,” said Eric Anderson, Co-Founder and Co-Chairman of Planetary Resources in a release. “In addition to supporting life, water will also be separated into oxygen and hydrogen for breathable air and rocket propellant.”