Often thought of as useless hunks of rock or ice floating around space, asteroids also have one giant, scary stigma attached to them: They could completely destroy our planet. But some asteroids are also rich sources of precious minerals, like iron, platinum, or gold.
Two NASA missions are planning to explore mineral-laden asteroids in 2021 and 2023. Part of NASA’s Discovery Program, the missions are considered inexpensive, coming in at $450 million apiece.
The first mission will involve scientists launching a robotic spacecraft named Lucy in October 2021. They hope to reach a Massachusetts-size asteroid, named 16 Psyche, made up completely of nickel and iron. This metallic monolith is considered a minor planet due to its enormous size, which comes in at about 130 miles in diameter. Psyche is located in the Trojan asteroid belt, between Jupiter and Saturn.
“Because the Trojans are remnants of the primordial material that formed the outer planets, they hold vital clues to deciphering the history of the solar system. Lucy, like the human fossil for which it is named, will revolutionize the understanding of our origins,” said the principle investigator of the mission, Harold F. Levison.
Associate administrator at NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, Thomas Zurbuchen, notes that this kind of asteroid has never been studied before. “This is what Discovery Program missions are all about,” Zurbuchen noted, “boldly going to places we’ve never been to enable groundbreaking science.”
It is estimated that it will take Lucy six years to get there; once it arrives, it will spend 20 months mapping and studying the asteroid.
The other mission, which will launch in October 2023, involves another robotic spacecraft named Psyche, which, after an Earth gravity assist maneuver in 2024, will shoot past Mars in 2025, and reach the asteroid by 2030.
For the mission, scientists from Arizona State University will work with NASA. Lindy Elkins-Tanton, of ASU, who will serve as the principal investigator, said, “16 Psyche is the only known object of its kind in the solar system, and this is the only way humans will ever visit a core.”
This could give us more information about our planet, as well as other terrestrial or rocky planets like Venus, Mars, and Mercury. And such explorations could help us break through into a whole new industry, as Elkins-Tanton believes the value of the asteroid’s iron content to be about $10,000 quadrillion.
Even more exciting is the thought that the value of an asteroid could wipe out global debt, which totals $60 trillion. And enough could be left over to provide every single human on the planet a comfortable living. Elkins-Tanton has proposed bringing an asteroid hunk back and spreading out its value little by little.
Private companies have already begun lining up to mine asteroids, while Congress has passed the Asteroid Act to systemize the practice.
It is thought that almost 10,000 asteroids near Earth have incredible mineral potential, which gives more weight to the thought that our global debt could, in fact, be wiped out. And considering the already high demand for such minerals, especially given the outspreading of smartphones, computers, and other technologies continues, the desire for asteroid mining is even more alluring.
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