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NASA takes asteroid mining seriously; funds viability study

Only five months after Google’s billionaire co-founders and filmmaker James Cameron officially launched their asteroid mining focused Planetary Resources company, the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is funding a study to evaluate how viable the endeavour really is.

Artist concept of the Robotic Asteroid Prospector by Marc Cohen et al.

According to Universe Today, space architect Marc Cohen will lead the research project, with the help of two trajectory and robotics specialists and a mineral economist.

Their jointed proposal, says NASA, will look at the fundamentals of some major questions facing the asteroid mining industry, such as the most suitable kinds of spacecraft needed, as well as the technology and business model required for a space mining project.

The team will design a mission, using a robotic miner that would launch from one of the Earth-Moon Lagrange Points (EMLP) and intercept a near Earth asteroid, mine its resources on site, and then return to the EMLP to eventually ship the mined materials to Earth.

By designing a mission, the study may be able to determine whether there is a business case for asteroid mining, but Cohen himself is sceptical of finding a positive answer to that question.

Asteroids are rich in valuable minerals. An M-type asteroid, the third most common type, just one km diameter could contain more than two billion tons of iron ore and nickel. And, notes the company, they are not very far away.

In February this year, the heads of the world’s five largest space agencies gathered in Canada to discuss interplanetary mining, particularly the viability of mining the Moon.

Several countries, including China, have already expressed an interest in mining the moon’s resources and a number of prototype machines already exist.

However, the question of who owns asteroids and other celestial bodies remains unanswered.