The Most Profitable Asteroid Is…

by Nancy Atkinson on May 16, 2012

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Artist impression of the Arkyd Interceptor, a low cost mission to explore asteroids. Credit: Planetary Resources.

With the recent announcement of the asteroid mining company, Planetary Resources, some of the most-asked questions about this enticing but complex endeavor include, what asteroids do we mine? Which are the easiest asteroids to get to? Could it really be profitable?

While Planetary Resources officials said they hope to identify a few promising targets within a decade, the initial answers to those questions are available now on a new website that estimates the costs and rewards of mining rocks in space. Called Asterank, the website uses available data from multiple scientific sources on asteroid mass and composition to try and compute which asteroids would be the best targets for mining operations.

So, which asteroids are most profitable, valuable, easily accessible and cost effective?

The winners are, according to Asterank:

Most Profitable: 253 Mathilde, a 52.8 km-diameter C-type (carbonaceous) asteroid that has an estimated value of over $100 trillion and estimated profit of $9.53 trillion (USD)
Most Cost Effective: 2000 BM19, a very small O-type asteroid (less than 1 km wide) that makes several close approaches to Earth. Its estimated value is $18.50 trillion and an estimated profit of $3.55 trillion.
Most Valuable: 253 Mathilde
Most Accessible: 2009 WY7, another small asteroid with regular close approaches of less than 1 AU. This is an S-type asteroid, a silicaceous or “stony” object that has a high accessibility score on Asterank of 7.6577.

Asterank combines both the economic and scientific features of over 580,000 asteroids in our solar system, looking specifically for platinum-group metals and water. It was created by Ian Webster, a software engineer in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“I’ve always had a strong interest in astronomy and especially space exploration,” Webster said via an email to Universe Today. “The commercialization of space through ventures like asteroid mining really excites me because I believe it’ll open space to the rest of us and improve human quality of life. My day job is at a startup unrelated to space, but my hobbies include building rockets and many side projects like this one. I have a lot of fun applying computer science in different ways and I hope that Asterank will educate and inspire people.”

Webster provides a caveat, however, to the rankings of the top 100 asteroids in each category.

“Scientists know shockingly little about the composition of asteroids,” he writes on the website. “Visit JPL’s Small Body Database and you will notice how sparse information is.”

So, this mean that there aren’t really ‘experts’ in this field, and even those most knowledgeable about asteroids likely don’t have the numbers needed to completely and accurately estimate the true value of an asteroid or the cost of mining it — “which is why Planetary Resources is going to spend years or even decades investing in LEO-telescopes and data-gathering flybys before they ever touch an asteroid,” Webster said.

Webster has used databases, websites, books and other publications to get as much accurate, up-to-date information as possible, but even then, he said everything on the website is a rough estimation.

“The primary purpose of this site is to broadly educate and inspire, rather than provide completely accurate data — which is currently impossible,” he said. “I created the site in response to the announcement of Planetary Resources. “I should point out that nearly all the measurements and hard data come from the scientists at NASA JPL, but I had a lot of fun putting the site together.”

And it is fun to peruse the various categories and see what asteroids make the top of each category.

The ranking takes into account the value of the materials on the asteroids such as metals, volatile compounds, and water; the costs of getting to an asteroid and moving the raw materials: and the comparative savings and potential profit, which at this point are very hypothetical, taking into account processing and moving raw material.

“We really don’t know yet how much it will cost to mine an object millions of miles away,” Webster said.

While this website is a first step, it offers an exciting and enjoyable initial look at the potential commercial viability of space mining.

Check out Asterank.

About 

Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also works with Astronomy Cast, and is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

Zoutsteen from Holland May 16, 2012 at 2:57 PM

with those estimates, i agree that those “pebbles” are like a carrot on a stick
whomever jumps up high, comes down rich
The costs up front will be a big limiting factor though of who can jump.

bfmorris May 16, 2012 at 4:31 PM

So a 100 trillion $ rock will cost about 90 $ trillion to access?

Zoutsteen from Holland May 16, 2012 at 8:07 PM

its not as bad as it sounds. they won’t start with 253 Mathilde though and investments will be shared with knowledge and space operations in return.

.. .__. May 16, 2012 at 8:58 PM

I would have thought an M class would be more profitable…

TheDirtBoy May 17, 2012 at 1:24 AM

I’m not sure how it isn’t as bad as it sounds considering the biggest corporations in America are only worth a few hundred billion dollars.

Zoutsteen from Holland May 17, 2012 at 9:35 AM

you look at a big number without understanding what it stands for.

What you are saying would be equal to having every car on the road starting from scratch in one go. Last year the 1 billion mark has been reached in that, with an average of $33,000 (USA 2011) … that would be a big number to pay in one go. And with that $ amount you’re not there yet. You also need roads, gas stations, garages … the whole logistics aspect.

When you now grasp the picture of the meaning of $90 trillion, you would understand that things will be done in phases. After that … any investor would get a share of the 10 trillion profit. Divide that by 3 companies and its 3 trillion each, for a company now worth ONLY a few hunderd billion.

tel00 May 16, 2012 at 3:59 PM

Between this and spacex’s reusable rocket they are trying to develop, i’m hoping they can build this for real:

http://www.universetoday.com/95099/engineer-thinks-we-could-build-a-real-starship-enterprise-in-20-years/

It will be nice to take a cruise aboard that thing.

kevinlee670 May 16, 2012 at 4:20 PM

my buddy’s mother-in-law makes $69/hour on the internet. She has been laid off for 5 months but last month her pay was $13406 just working on the internet for a few hours. Here’s the site to read more ?????? http://hirebestfreelancer.blogspot.com

andrewlea14 May 17, 2012 at 4:04 AM

my buddy’s step-sister makes $68/hour on the computer. She has been out of work for nine months but last month her pay was $18511 just working on the computer for a few hours. Read more here ?????? http://Makecash11.blogspot.com

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Steve Nerlich May 17, 2012 at 11:37 AM

Hey, I know this guy in Nigeria…

pollydextrous May 17, 2012 at 5:56 PM

To put those numbers in perspective, the current global GDP is only around $60 Trillion a year.

pollydextrous May 17, 2012 at 6:14 PM

I didn’t notice 2010 TK7 in the asterank listings, and I’m wondering why. As it’s at Earth’s L4, wouldn’t it be considered more mine-able than asteroids that zip across Earth’s orbital path? I mean, the materials mined from the L4 should need just a short shot of fuel to be raised to an orbit higher relative to Earth’s, which would then leave the Earth to catch up to it and “grab” it. Transport costs might be minimised that way. Getting mined materials back from a PHA sounds like it would be more difficult/expensive.

iwebster May 29, 2012 at 7:34 PM

Hi pollydextrous,

Unfortunately we don’t have spectral data on 2010 TK7, so we can’t make assumptions about its class and composition. It does not rank highly as a result. You make a good point about Earth trojans though, and maybe the algorithm ought to be updated to take this into account.

Tony Rusi May 18, 2012 at 7:45 PM

There are much cheaper ways to access Low Earth Orbit than the Falcon 9 Heavy, currently guesstimated at $1,000 a pound to LEO. The Sea Dragon Rocket should cost about $100 a pound to LEO. That is ten times cheaper than SpaceX. Also a rotating sling can send 5 meter diameter nickle coated steel spheres filled with 200 kg of platinum group metals back to earth for ocean splashdown from L-4 or L-5 for a tenth of Sea Dragon Rocket costs.

TheDirtBoy May 18, 2012 at 4:17 AM

Actually, I understand just fine. I understand that in order to see this happen within my lifetime you would need not just three companies but major commitments from the entire fortune 500 list. I also understand that if the three highest grossing companies in the world were to pool ALL of their revenue it would still take 10 years just to reach the most cost effective asteroid. Asteroid mining is 200 years away, easily.

Zoutsteen from Holland May 18, 2012 at 2:36 PM

No, you see $90 trillion being paid up front for the biggest asteroid. Its billions for the first few easy access asteroids. Return will be in the billions as well, but growing as the industry grows.

And eventual payment will be done by every consumer using platinum and other products minable from asteroids.

So you actualy “might” see the business blooming within your lifetime, as much as commercial satelites were sprung to life in no time from hardly any to hundreds (888 total sats 4-1-2009) in my life, with about 1200 more to be launched in the next decade.

TheDirtBoy May 19, 2012 at 8:17 AM

I don’t see $90 trillion as being paid up front, that’s not possible. You point to 888 satellites in orbit and automotive infrastructure as a model for how this business would grow but there is a problem with your logic. None of this was put together by one or even three companies, it was all done by thousands of companies over many decades. There is also the slight problem of reliable information on these asteroids or complete lack of, in most cases. What happens if someone does drop a few billion to go to one of these “accessible” asteroids and finds little or nothing of value? This whole idea is just far to risky for anyone to be seriously intrested in doing.

For what it’s worth, I hope your right but I won’t get my hopes up.

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