Artists’s impression of what a typical large asteroid might look like tugged into low earth orbit. Credit: desconocido.

It seems like science fiction to think one day we’ll be exploiting these space rocks for their wealth. Mining asteroids is it for real? You bet and it’s closer than you think. Recently a new start up company called Planetary Resources announced plans to send humans up to near Earth asteroids with special equipment to capture one and bring it closer to Earth, probably in orbit around the moon, to mine for its rich mineralogy.

Even without human intervention, using current technology, the asteroid could be fetched, and then deposited into high lunar orbit using a container like robotic spacecraft powered by a solar electric propulsion system. The idea of exploiting the natural resources of asteroids dates back over 100 years, however, only now has the technology become available to make this idea a reality.

The expected bounty mining asteroids includes metals like nickel and iron, and even resources like water, oxygen, and various metals that could be used to power spacecraft travelling to more distant parts of the galaxy. They could bring back metals in the platinum group as well, which are dwindling on Earth, for hydrogen fuel cells and catalytic converters.

NASA estimated that, for a cool US$2 billion, somebody could send a solar powered spacecraft to fetch a 500 ton, 20 metre wide asteroid and bring it into orbit around the moon. Estimates are that one large asteroid could reap more than US$1 billion worth of just platinum alone! If that’s true, the return on investment could be amazing.

One asteroid in the sights of developers is a 4.5 kilometre wide monster called Amun. This particular asteroid is a goldmine, well, not gold so much, but it does contain a cool US$8 trillion worth of platinum, again an essential precious metal used in everything from jewellery to computers. On Earth, only a few hundred tonnes of the stuff are produced every year.

Planetary Resources has in fact estimated asteroid Amun contains another US$8 trillion in iron and nickel, and a mere US$6 trillion worth of cobalt. Whew! It’s been calculated the value of Amun could be anything up to a cool US$20 trillion! Not a bad payday for just drilling rocks.

Scientists recently found another 1.5 kilometre wide near Earth asteroid, known as 1986 DA said to contain 100,000 tonnes of platinum and 10,000 tonnes of gold. That’s worth another couple of trillion. Not too shabby and for future entrepreneurs, well within reach.

How many of these kilometres wide metal paydays are up there? We have only a vague idea. Nearly 9,000 near Earth asteroids have been discovered so far. Planetary Resources’ best guess is that represents just 1% of the total.

So, the total payout from one unassuming asteroid? US$20,000,000,000,000. Isn’t it interesting, the first trillionaires in history, those people who will make their fortunes in low earth orbit mining asteroids, are being born right now!