Mining Quarries Millions Of Miles From Earth

A private company has unveiled plans to mine precious metals and water from nearby asteroids. Planetary Resources co-founder Eric Anderson discusses the various stages of the mining process and how the excavated minerals could impact future space exploration and innovation on Earth.

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IRA FLATOW, HOST:

Up next, it's the stuff of science fiction, space-faring robots chipping away at nearby asteroids to extract trillions of dollars' worth of precious metal. One company announced this week that it hopes to turn the idea into reality, the venture Planetary Resources, backed by filmmaker James Cameron and a group of billionaire investors, including Larry - Google's Larry Page and Eric Schmidt.

They plan to expand the world's natural resources by mining near-Earth asteroids. Eric Anderson is the chairman and the CEO of a private space exploration company, Space Adventures, also co-chair and co-founder of Planetary Resources. He calls himself an asteroid miner. He joins us from Los Angeles. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

ERIC ANDERSON: How are you, Ira?

FLATOW: You have that miner's hat on with the light on in the front?

ANDERSON: I don't. Right now I'm behind a computer, looking at astrodynamical orbits and other sources, prospecting data as we begin our search for the near-Earth asteroids that are going to be the most valuable for our missions.

FLATOW: I mean, this has got to be an expensive venture. Can you really make money on pulling in the asteroids and mining them?

ANDERSON: I believe so. We wouldn't have started the company otherwise. But, you know, it is an expensive venture in the long term, but so is every other resource-intensive and extraction effort. I mean, these kinds of projects are - over the lifetime of terrestrial mines and, you know, gas finds or oil finds and things like that, they're measured in decades and they're measured in billions of dollars. And I think that ultimately, to get the kind of resources out of space that will really make a dent in global GDP, you're going to have the same number.

FLATOW: And you say these are like the low-hanging fruit of the solar system.

ANDERSON: Well, there's no doubt about that. So the near-Earth asteroids number about 500,000, but we only know of 9,000. And the reason that they're so interesting, Ira, is because they are actually energetically easier to reach than the surface of the moon. So we've been to the moon many times, and the moon is a great place, which is very worthy of our exploration. But just to give you an idea of how close some of the asteroids are, they're easier to reach than our own moon.

FLATOW: Yeah.

ANDERSON: So they're not way out there in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. These are...

FLATOW: Right.

ANDERSON: ...near-Earth objects, and they are very, very useful.

FLATOW: Yeah. What kind of metal? You looking for platinum, gold? What's the holy grail here?

ANDERSON: Well, there's lots of different types of asteroids, and each type has a different concentration of different types of elements. So a certain type of asteroid is very high in nickel and iron. Those are useful, ultimately. Another type is very high in water, which is extremely useful. Other volatiles as well, things like methane, which you know better as natural gas.

FLATOW: Let me stop you there for a minute because we have plenty of water on this planet. I mean, do we have to go to an asteroid to mine it?

ANDERSON: Well, the water that we would get off of asteroids would not be brought back to Earth. That would be used to drive an economy in space. So the great expense of going to the asteroids and going to the moon and other planets is, of course, the fact that it takes a lot of rocket fuel, and the fuel we have to bring from the surface of the Earth. So if we can actually source our fuel in space, it makes literally the roadways open for the rest of the solar system.

FLATOW: So these are like little fill-up stations...

ANDERSON: Well, I mean we call them propellant depots, but yes, in layman's terms it's a gas station. And for - you know, let's not forget that water is comprised of two molecules, two atoms of hydrogen, one atom of oxygen. And hydrogen and oxygen, together, form the best propellant fuel combination that we know of.

FLATOW: Yeah.

ANDERSON: It's what powered the space shuttle.

FLATOW: Right.

ANDERSON: And if you take - just to give you an idea of the scope, if you take a 50-meter asteroid, of which there are literally thousands that is rich in water, that has enough water on it, enough ice, to have launched every single space shuttle that ever launched in the history of the space shuttle program.

FLATOW: Wow. I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR, talking with Eric Anderson, co-chair and co-founder of Planetary Resources. So those things would be very valuable, as you say, for space fuel. Added to the - on top of that, the asteroids might have valuable minerals that you can mine on them.

ANDERSON: Well, there's no question about that. So I've studied at length the resources, the various elements that we have on Earth and their abundances and their scarcity and their - you know, the peak point that we project that we're going to be able to pull them out of our various terrestrial mines and what our reserves are.

And you'd actually be shocked to see, when you really look at it, the number of different elements that are - we have only decades left - some short number of decades and others longer numbers of decades - but in my mind, to drive the prosperity of the future.

If we want our children - and, really, our children's children and their children - to have the same level of prosperity that we in the West have, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that we're going to need to bring resources from space and add them to our economic base in order to allow that prosperity. It's not like we can't live without resources from space 100 years from now, but it means that we're going to be fighting over them a lot more than we are now.

FLATOW: Yeah. Is that timeline you're talking about 100 years, or what is...

ANDERSON: Well, that's the timeline, I think, that would be fair to talk about in terms of bringing mass resources like, you know, millions and millions of tons per year. But I think even on a scale of 10 years or 15 years, we could certainly be bringing back the most valuable resources. And that brings me to my point before, which was that the platinum group metals right now are thousands of dollars per ounce.

I think platinum itself is 1,500 bucks an ounce, and there are other platinum group metals that are more and others that are less. And these are really expensive metals. I mean, all of the platinum that's ever been mined in history would fit into a small box in the middle of a room, OK? So maybe two or three cubic meters, and yet it exists in these very high quantities in certain types of asteroids. (Unintelligible)...

FLATOW: But won't you be driving down the price of platinum if you start bringing it back to Earth?

ANDERSON: I'll tell you, Ira, nothing would make me happier. The story of aluminum, if you - it's a really interesting one if you go and look it up.

FLATOW: Yeah.

ANDERSON: Even though aluminum is 10 percent of our Earth's crust, we could never get to it until the 18th century because it was in oxides and we didn't know how to get it. So back in the day of Napoleon's court, when he had his most VIP guests, he would pull out the aluminum and leave the gold and silver for the nobles.

And then we figured out how to pull aluminum out of its oxides, and now we use it everywhere. And platinum group metals are no different. They're very useful in electronics, microprocessors, medical devices, you name it, catalytic converters, renewable energy. And I would love to see a day - whenever that may be - when the platinum group metals are 100 times cheaper than they are now.

FLATOW: I'm reminded of a "Twilight Zone" adventure where they learned how to make gold and it was worthless. That's another story, but take us through the steps for your plan stage. Where do we go from here, and what are the steps?

ANDERSON: Well, it's a three-phase plan. First of all, we have a technology road map that we've developed that lists every bit and every piece of technology that we need in order to go and extract resources from asteroids. We have some of that technology today and others we need to develop. And so we're slowly but surely piecing together, pulling together all the different pieces of technology that we need to have. Number two, we're going to do asteroid prospecting. And so this means that, first, we're going to develop a series of Arkyd 100 spacecraft to go into low Earth orbit and study the nearest asteroids and make sure that we've found, you know, lots of the other interesting ones that are not yet found and look closer at the ones that we do know of.

FLATOW: And number three?

ANDERSON: Well, part of number two is to go and send swarms of Arkyd 300 spacecraft to these high targets that - high value targets. And then after number two, we'll choose the ones that we want to actually extract resources from. And then number three, phase three comes along, which is to go and extract those resources and deliver them to the point of need.

FLATOW: Good luck to you, Eric Anderson. I hope you get a webcam on those asteroids for us to follow along with you.

ANDERSON: We will. Don't worry.

FLATOW: All right. Thanks for joining us.

ANDERSON: Thank you.

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

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