An Asteroid Made of Platinum

Someday, perhaps 30 years from now, companies will be grabbing asteroids and exploiting them for mineral extraction. Asteroids contain the same valuable minerals, from gold to platinum, from cobalt to indium, that space showered upon Earth billions of years ago. One sizeable asteroid can hold $20 trillion worth of minerals. On a smaller, more practical scale, Peter Diamandis estimates that a single 100-foot asteroid can contain as much as $50 billion of platinum. The good news is, we can exploit asteroids without damaging Earth’s environment, and the supply is literally endless. The bad news: asteroid mining will be enormously risky and expensive, at least in the beginning.

To gain the promised prosperity, the exploration must be funded by society as a whole: through our government. The leading program, OSIRIS-Rex, a science-driven mission, was due for launch in 2016. The plan is to travel 300,000 miles to asteroid 101955 Bennu and bring back two kilograms (a little more than 4 pounds) for study; the round trip will take seven years. In short, we’ll get our first chunk of asteroid in 2023, at a cost of $800 million, rocket not included. (The rocket costs an additional $184 million.) Spurred by President Obama, a more ambitious project has been proposed, to lasso an asteroid and bring it into orbit around the Moon for further study. Its cost of about $2 billion seems out of range to many members of Congress.

Still, that’s where government should come in. Long-term, high-risk ventures with a literally incalculable payoff are the work of a great nation. As a whole.