Asteroid mining

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TEMPE, Ariz. -- Google's Larry Page, Ross Perot Jr. and director James Cameron. They're all big names with big money and they hope they can turn space rocks into trillions of dollars. They want to unearth the riches of space by mining an asteroid.

Dr. David Williams at ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration has been watching announcements from a billionaire-backed venture called Planetary Resources for several weeks, “and I think they said in one of the interviews there that there is enough materials in any one asteroid they could bring back a trillion dollars or more.”

But Williams, who has been watching an asteroid of his own, Vesta, as part of NASA’s Dawn Mission, says before the billionaires behind Planetary Resources can mine anything, they have to know what the targeted asteroids are made of.

“Some of them might be enriched in iron or maybe titanium, something like that, or platinum group elements,” he said.

They will initially use low orbit telescopes with sophisticated cameras and spectrometers to find out.

And ASU professor Dr. Donald Burt, also at the School of Earth and Space Exploration, says platinum could be the real treasure. On Earth it is mostly in the core and some asteroids come right from the core of old planets.

“They're assuming that all the platinum in the core of the earth, which is impossible or nearly impossible to remove, is floating around in space as meteorites,” Burt said.

If it can be efficiently mined, Planetary Resources would control the market.

What is not likely to be found? Lots of gold and gemstones, according to Burt.

“The minerals one normally mines on Earth have all crystallized from liquid water,” he said.

And there is no liquid water on asteroids, however the space ice on some of them has a value of its own, according to Burt.

“We take water for granted on this planet, but in space it is rocket  fuel,” he said.

And in fact, Williams says the real riches may not be in what we bring back to earth.

“It is probably not bringing them back to Earth, but actually using them to build a space-bearing civilization, orbital habitats, resources that could be used to build lunar bases or Martian bases or colonies, things like that," Williams said. "So you need building materials, iron, titanium is really good, platinum group elements."

Exactly how the mining would be done is still an open question, since the technology is not there yet, which explains the investors behind the group.

“That is probably why it is these billionaires, who can afford to invest this kind of money, because they will need the time,” Williams said.

But if they are successful, Williams says not only the billionaires, but all of us will be richer.

“If things work out well there could be serious economic drivers for future, in the next 50 years I would think,“ Williams said.

Planetary Resources hopes to launch their first telescopes next year.