October 24th, 2014: Astronomy and Asteroid Mining

The idea of mining the asteroids for their resources – long a dream – has become closer to reality with the advent of commercial companies set up to do exactly that: Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries. Both companies emphasize sending swarms of cubesat-class probes out to prospect the resources of numbers of near-Earth asteroids (NEAs). How realistic are these companies’ goals? Careful analysis suggests that ore-bearing (i.e. potentially profitable) NEAs are rare and that the supporting astronomical data is limited and patchy in quality. The first phase of asteroid prospecting will have to be industrial in scale (characterizing 1000s of NEAs/year) and will be carried out by ground-based telescopes, primarily in the optical band. The observations demand large (2m – 8m) telescopes and high professional standards (0.1” or better astrometry; 0.1% photometry; sub-1% spectrophotometry). Just like geologists, applied astronomers will be in demand.

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