What do scientists know about mining's final frontier?
Laura Geggel and Katie Peek
Types of Asteroids
Locations of Known Asteroids
Of the 585,081 known asteroids between the sun and Jupiter, 562,224 are in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter.
The innermost peaks have the most accurate asteroid counts, as rocks at the inner edge of the asteroid belt are easier to see from Earth.
Birth of a Minable Asteroid
SOURCES: The Chemistry of the Solar System, Katharina Lodders and Bruce Fegley, Jr., 2011; jet propulsion laboratory small-body database, ssd.jpl.nasa.gov/sbdb_query.cgi; Baer, J., Chesley, S., and Britt, D., Eds., Asteroid Masses V3.0 NASA Planetary Data System, April 2012
In April, Planetary Resources, a newly formed private space company, announced that It would begin mining asteroids for water In 2020. Asteroids, the firm said, could also be a valuable source of platinum-group elements (PGEs), six metals used in Industrial chemical reactions and devices such as catalytic converters. Earth contains only four high-grade PGE deposits, and the demand for the metals Is increasing. But Is there enough Information to know where to dig? The basics are clear—how asteroids form, where they are located, and, roughly, what they’re composed of—but details are scarce. Upcoming missions, Including those by Planetary Resources’ own prospecting spacecraft, may fill In some of the holes. But If space mining Is to work, prospectors will need much more accurate Information about the solar system and Its minerals.
A Selection of Asteroid Visitations
Mission: Galileo Date: 1991-1993 Targets: Gaspra, Ida, Dactyl [pictured]
Mission Stardust Date: 2002 Target: Annefrank
Mission: Dawn Date: 2011-2015 Targets: Vesta [pictured], Ceres
Mission NEAR Shoemaker Date: 1997-2001 Targets: Eros [pictured], Mathilde
Mission Hayabusa Date: 2005-2007 Target: Itokawa
Mission Hayabusa-2 Date: 2018-2019 Target: 1999 JU3
Mission: Deep Date: 1999 Target: Braille
Mission Rosetta Date: 2008-2010 Targets: Steins, Lutetia [pictured]
Mission Osihs-REx Date: 2019-2021 Target: 1999 RQ36
At certain distances, Jupiter's gravitational sun influence safe ejects smaller asteroids, creating gaps in their spatial distribution. * *
Some 5,402 asteroids, known as Trojans, circle the sun in a gravitational safe haven around Jupiter.