There's Platinum in Them Thar Asteroids

Jonathan Strickland

They're out there, just waiting for us to harvest their precious space-guts. | Image courtesy NASA

Asteroid mining may not be as far out as you think. It turns out some asteroids are absolutely loaded with materials that could be really useful to us, particularly in space exploration and colonization missions. You can find everything from water to platinum metals in asteroids scattered throughout our solar system.

We know there are resources out there but getting our hands on them might be tricky. Two of the commercial companies that plan on mining asteroids -- Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries -- have fairly vague plans on how to actually harvest the stuff we might find on these hunks of rock and metal flying through space.

On the one hand, I can understand the approach. Both companies have investors who are funding the early phases of the project -- what mostly amounts to surveying likely targets for asteroid mining. While these early phases are developed and launched, the companies will be working diligently to come up with an actual approach to mine an asteroid. But it's probably going to be a few years before a robotic prospector strikes gold out in the cold reaches of space.

On the other hand, I get a little antsy when the actual mining stage is essentially a big question mark. It makes me think of the underpants gnomes from South Park. First, steal the underpants. Second, something. Third, PROFIT!

If asteroid mining becomes viable, it has the potential to not only provide us the raw materials we'll need for further space exploration but also possibly shake up global economics back here on Earth. Imagine if a mining company managed to capture more platinum in a few mining operations than we've ever seen in our entire history on this planet. Of course, if that company has sole access to all that platinum, we could have another diamond industry on our hands.

We won't know how this will turn out for a while now. But I'm curious to hear your opinion -- do you think asteroid mining companies are going to become another De Beers, or is it all just a bunch of underpants gnomes?