There are Many Metal-Rich Asteroids Nearby to Investigate

Usually, when the topic of asteroid mining comes up, thoughts turn to the riches of the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.  The sheer size and scale of the available resources in these asteroids are astounding and overshadow a much more accessible resource – Near-Earth Asteroids (NEAs) that are much closer to home. Now a team from the University of Arizona (UA) has spent some time looking at these near neighbors and realized some are very similar to one of the most famous asteroids in the belt – Psyche.

Psyche is well known for its high metal content, which interests nascent asteroid miners because of the value of materials it contains.  With 85% of its weight contained in metals, even a 50-meter (164-foot) object could have vast reserves of material that could be used to build out Earth’s space infrastructure, but without the hindrance of having to launch it from a gravity well.

UT video discussing asteroid mining.

The UA researchers looked at two distinct NEAs – 1986 DA and 2016 ED85, which appeared similar to Psyche.  They then calculated the total amount of material available in just one of those asteroids (1986 DA) and realized it could contain more iron, nickel, and cobalt than the current global reserves (i.e., the amount on the planet left to mine easily) of each material. Just a single asteroid could provide the world’s requirements for these materials for decades.

But the researchers didn’t stop there.  They tried to track down similar asteroids to these NEAs to see where they might have come from.  The standard theory is that they formed when the core of a failed planet (which became the asteroid belt) broke apart.  Gravitational fluxes then pulled the NEAs into their own orbits, but most objects with a similar composition stayed in the asteroid belt itself, including Psyche.

Screenshot from a website called Asterank, which ranks asteroids based on their potential value.
Screenshot from a website called Asterank, which ranks asteroids based on their potential value.
Credit- Asterank

Psyche is the most well-known of these metal-rich asteroids and will be getting its own visitor from NASA soon. However, many of Psyche’s neighbors match the spectral profile of the NEAs that were studied as well. 1986 DA and 2016 ED85 likely formed under similar conditions to their peers in the outer asteroid belt but serendipitously hit the gravitational jackpot and got slung closer to the planet with the lifeforms that would be most interested in utilizing them.

They are sure not to be the only NEAs that will be useful in building up space infrastructure. But even access to all the resources of a single one would go a long way to helping build up that infrastructure.  Lots of groups are currently working on technologies that would give us access to that. Hopefully, researchers will find plenty more similar NEAs by the time those new technologies are ready.

Learn More:
UA – ‘Mini Psyches’ Give Insights into Mysterious Metal-Rich Near-Earth Asteroids
The Planetary Science Journal – Physical Characterization of Metal-rich Near-Earth Asteroids 6178 (1986 DA) and 2016 ED85
UT – Trump Signs an Executive Order Allowing Mining the Moon and Asteroids
UT – Who Wants to be a Trillionaire? Mission to Psyche Could Uncover Tons of Precious Metals!

Lead Image:
Artist impression of a metal-rich NEA
Credit – Addy Graham / University of Arizona