$5-trillion asteroid to whiz past Earth

An asteroid said to contain up to $5.4 trillion worth of platinum reserves will be making a close approach to planet Earth this evening, July 19th.

At half a kilometre across, asteroid 2011 UW-158 is too small to be spotted by the human eye, even though it will come 30 times closer to Earth – about 1.5 million miles away – than Mars, the nearest planet. Astronomers will be searching for the valuable space rock through telescopes tonight.

"What makes this unusual is the large amount of platinum believed to be lurking in the body of this space visitor. Can it be mined someday, perhaps not too far in the future?" said Bob Berman of Sloosh Community Observatory, which links telescopes to the Internet thus making viewing accessible to anyone with a Web browser.

Scientists believe the asteroid could contain up to 90 million tonnes of platinum and other precious metals.

The appearance of the asteroid comes just three days after asteroid mining company Planetary Resources successfully deployed Thursday its first spacecraft from the International Space Station’s (ISS) Kibo airlock, beginning a 90-day mission aimed to test extraterrestrial prospecting technology.

The Arkyd 3 Reflight (A3R), launched to the ISS onboard the SpaceX Falcon 9 last April, will spend its three-month orbiting mission sending back data to a group of scientists based at the firm’s headquarters in Redmond, WA.

According to Sloosh, Planetary Resources has categorized 2011 UW-158 as an "X-type" asteroid that is suitable for mining. The company is interested in exploiting the asteroid for platinum and possibly water.

Many consider asteroid mining a first and key step to the eventual colonization of outer space.

Nearly 9,000 asteroids larger than 36 meters (150 feet) in diameter orbit near Earth. Geologists believe they are packed with iron ore, nickel and precious metals at much higher concentrations than those found on Earth, making up a market valued in the trillions of dollars.

Asteroids are also a prime source for water in space, essential for interplanetary outpost.

In 2014 the European Space Agency proved it is possible to land a spacecraft on a comet, when the Rosetta drone touched down on Comet 67P/Churyumov, after having travelled 6 billion kilometres in a decade.

2011 UW-158 is expected to make a return orbit to Earth in three years time, when it will be even closer to the planet.

Image from Youtube