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Surprising Science

Is it Economical to Mine Asteroids for Resources?

NASA has agreed to fund a study into whether or not mining asteroids for precious metals and minerals is economically sound. Surely not at the moment, but it might be in the future...

What’s the Latest Development?

NASA has awarded funding to a team of researchers on a mission to determine if mining asteroids for precious metals, and perhaps water, is economically sound. The study was motivated by the introduction of Planetary Resources, a new business proposed by Peter Diamandis, the American engineer who founded the X Prize Foundation. Researchers will ask: “What kinds of mission and spacecraft design are necessary? Is the right kind of mining technology available? And most importantly, is there even a viable business model for doing it in the first place?”

What’s the Big Idea?

Given the overhead costs, an asteroid mining business is clearly not viable at the moment. Such a project would presume a telescope in Venus’ orbit to scout for near-Earth asteroids (containing substantial mineral resources) and regular commercial access to a service base located in a Lagrange point from which to launch the missions. “The assumptions lead to a spacecraft design, possibly using a solar-thermal propulsion system, that launches to a NEO from the Lagrange point station, mines and processes the material at the asteroid and then returns it to the Lagrange point for shipment back to Earth.”

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