Opinion

WHITTINGTON: Reaching The ‘Golden Asteroid’ Is Well Worth Our Tax Dollars

NASA/JPL-Caltech

Mark Whittington Contributor

NASA is preparing to launch a probe to an asteroid called “16 Psyche,” also known as the “golden asteroid.” It holds industrial and precious metals worth an estimated $10,000 quadrillion at current market value. The asteroid and similar mineral sources could help NASA change space exploration from an expensive government program to something that could create limitless prosperity.

The Psyche Orbiter mission is due to depart Earth in 2022 and to reach 16 Psyche in 2026. It will conduct scientific observations, including characterization of its mineral wealth. That includes gold, platinum, iron, and nickel, among other materials.

Some in the media are hyperventilating about the idea that we could bring the gold to Earth, thereby making everyone billionaires. People who imagine this need remedial economics education. A sudden influx of gold would collapse the value of Earth’s metal reserves and wreak havoc on financial markets.

But gold is a useful industrial metal, employed in medicine, electronics and computers. Cheap gold could reduce the costs of these products. Something similar happened to aluminum. Aluminum was a precious metal until the development of cheap refining technology in 1880. Now we wrap our food in the stuff.

16 Psyche is not the only asteroid that NASA is exploring that contains a rich deposit of materials. A probe called OSIRIS-REx is orbiting an asteroid called Bennu, which has an estimated value of $700 million. The Japanese have sent a probe to another asteroid, Ryugu, with an estimated worth of $82.86 billion.

NASA and other space agencies discover about 1,000 asteroids with telescopes annually. Expeditions to asteroids, even for science, can help to usher in an era of asteroid mining by discovering rich natural resources. Scarcity has characterized Earth’s economics to this point in history. Asteroids represent a source of natural resources that are, for all practical purposes, without limit.

Discovery and characterization are only the first step in creating an asteroid mining industry. We must develop the technology to allow companies to extract and refine resources. Even getting to some of the asteroids and bringing back their resources will be challenging.

16 Psyche resides in the main asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Propulsion technology will have to advance further before traveling to it makes economic sense. NASA is developing nuclear electric propulsion, which may be key. Future mining spacecraft could use similar technology.

Aside from some small-scale study contracts, NASA has not been at the forefront of developing asteroid mining technology. The space agency might be well advised to engage in some “technology risk reduction,” as NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine often says, and develop a pilot asteroid mining mission, in partnership with industry. A robot could travel to an asteroid like 16 Psyche, extract some useful metal such as platinum, and then bring it back to low Earth orbit.

NASA has been more proactive in developing technologies to turn mined materials into useful things. Private companies have been running 3D printers on the International Space Station to see what they can build in microgravity. Soon, those companies will test robots on constructing large-scale structures in space.

Bringing industrial metals such as iron or titanium mined from asteroids back to Earth will likely never make economic sense, even with the cost of space travel on a steep decline. The exceptions are platinum-group metals and rare earths, which are important for products ranging from smart phones to wind turbines. Demand for those is growing.

We will construct most of what we can build from materials torn from the hearts of asteroids in space. Currently, everything that we can build in space must fit in a rocket that launches with supplies. Access to asteroid materials will allow companies to build huge satellites, space stations and even settlements that would dwarf the ISS, solar power collectors that could beam limitless, clean energy to Earth, and factories that would churn out products that we can only manufacture in space using microgravity. Those can then ship to markets on our home planet.

The prospect of a space-based industrial revolution fueled by asteroid and lunar mining would be a great answer for all those who complain about the cost of our space program.

Mark Whittington (@MarkWhittington) is the author of Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? and The Moon, Mars and Beyond. He also operates his own blog, Curmudgeons Corner.


The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.