Why NASA is going two million kilometers to mine an asteroid

Asteroids are known to be valuable troves of precious minerals. A NASA mission is under way to test the usefulness on a nearby asteroid, and a niche group of companies is ramping up to claim a piece of the pie.

Nasa’s Osiris-Rex, launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida in 2016, has travelled over 1.3 billion km since, orbiting the sun for a year and hurtling past Earth to change course toward near-Earth asteroid Bennu

In August, Osiris-Rex will capture its first pictures of Bennu and start its 2 million-km approach, arriving in December. It will spend more than a year orbiting the asteroid to photograph and survey it.

In July 2020, Osiris-Rex will descend to Bennu’s surface and retrieve up to three samples. After nearly four years in space, Osiris-Rex will spend mere seconds extracting material from the surface of the asteroid.

Near-earth asteroid

Bennu appears very close to Earth every six years and scientists estimate asteroids of its type are made of about 10% iron and nickel

Shape & chemistry
During its time at Bennu, the spacecraft will analyze the asteroid’s shape and chemistry, sample its surface materials and gather data on its orbit so scientists can determine the likelihood of it crashing into Earth in the future

Back in 5 years
Osiris-Rex will start its return journey back to Earth in March 2021. When it nears Earth in September 2023, it will eject the sample capsule, which will parachute to the surface.

Industry barons see a future in finding and harnessing water on asteroids for rocket fuel, which will allow astronauts and spacecrafts to stay in orbit for longer periods. Investors, including Richard Branson, China’s Tencent Holdings and the nation of Luxembourg, see a longer term solution to replenishing materials such as iron and nickel as Earth’s natural resources are depleted.

Millions of asteroids roam our solar system. The estimated potential value of some of these asteroids — assuming you could completely mine them and assuming present market valuations — is so substantial as to be barely comprehensible. The most valuable known asteroid is estimated to be worth $15 quintillion, according to Asterank, a database owned by Planetary Resources, a company that aims to mine asteroids. That represents the world’s total gross domestic product (about $80 trillion) 192,283 times over.

There’s a lot we still don’t know about these asteroids, so their estimated values should be taken with a grain of salt.

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