Things are getting interesting at NASA. Former astronaut Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) confirmed that NASA is seeking $100 million to grab a Near Earth Asteroid (NEA) and bring it closer to Earth for study. The plan calls for using a robotic spacecraft to capture a NEA and bring it into stable lunar orbit. In 2021 astronauts will visit it using the then operational Orion spacecraft. The plan is based on a feasibility study conducted by the Keck Institute for Space Studies in California.
This is very exciting, not only for asteroid defense, but for the nascent asteroid mining industry. Unlike much government spending, NASA spending actually does incubate technologies that aid the development of private enterprise and benefit us all. These technologies are legion and include light-emitting diodes (LEDs), temper foam, artificial limbs, portable cordless vacuums, and solar cells (complete list). For asteroid mining it will not be a single technology but an entire industry.
Some may wonder why asteroid mining is so important. One major reason is to lower the cost of and increasing access to the rare earth metals. Our technological civilization relies on them and they are difficult to find in significant concentrations to mine economically. They are mixed into the dirt all around us. Indeed, some more abundant than gold. Significant quantities are so rare though that China currently supplies approximately 97% of humanities needs.
So what? Well, China has a cut off supplies when they feel its in there interests to do so. They did so to Japan during a diplomatic spat in 2010. Cynics think this was merely an attempt by China to drive up prices. Either way it is not in our long term interest to rely on a single national supplier. Anyone who has bought a diamond (ahem, DeBeers) can understand the power China wields over the market.
A main economic case for asteroid mining is the likelihood that rare earth elements are concentrated in NEAs. The reasons for this goes back to formation of the solar system, the NEAs were never pulverized into planets. NASA’s budget request and plan is a major step towards a more abundant supply. In an age of dysfunctional politics it is encouraging to see the government used in a way that it can be effective. The asteroid mining start-ups, leveraging the lower cost launch infrastructure developed by SpaceX, will benefit from this NASA plan. When the next asteroid explodes over Russia and Congress asks NASA what can be done about it Charles Bolden’s successor will have a better answer than ‘pray’.