In this morning’s news feeds I saw a few headlines about a “trillion dollar baby” asteroid – for example, this Forbes story, “’Trillion dollar baby’ asteroid has wannabe space miners salivating.”
According to Forbes, the near-Earth asteroid 2011 UW158, which made a so-called “close approach” to Earth yesterday – passing by at a distance of about 1.5 million miles – “is believed to be worth more than the entire economy of Japan.”
Who believes it? Chris Lewicki, president of Planetary Resources, who has claimed that 2011 UW158 contains $5 trillion worth of platinum.
The Slooh Community Observatory did a live Webcast about the fly-by, promoting it as an “asteroid mining show” about “The $5 trillion asteroid.” Headlines followed (mercifully, only a few). The live event included a recorded interview with Lewicki about asteroid mining.
According to Slooh host Eric Edelman, charting the course of 2011 UW158 is “very intriguing not just because of how close it gets to us but because of the dollar amount it could potentially be worth…. Nicknamed the five-trillion-dollar asteroid, it could contain between $300 billion and $5.4 trillion worth of platinum.”
Edelman asked Slooh astronomer Bob Berman, if I had an asteroid and I wanted to know what it’s worth, could I figure that out? “Yes, spectroscopically,” Berman said. “This is why Planetary Resources isn’t just hot air.”
In his interview with Lewicki (recorded July 17), Berman asked, you said a few years ago that 2011 UW158 contained $5 trillion of platinum – “how did you come up with that number?”
Lewicki didn’t answer the question. What he said is this: “Our near-term interest is the carbonaceous asteroids…. We’re not as interested in [2011 UW158] as we were.” Now Planetary Resources is interested in water, for use in space. “In a perfected industry, where space resources are part of our sphere of influence, we can use platinum for what it’s best at without worrying about the price tag.”
Berman responded, “That is so cool.”
“We haven’t made a change from platinum to water,” Lewicki said. The Planetary Resources “roadmap” calls for starting with water, to supply crews in space and to use as rocket-fuel feedstock. Platinum will be harder to mine, he said.
Planetary Resources owns Asterank, a Web site that “calculates” the dollar value of asteroids. According to Asterank, “Scientists know very little about the composition of asteroids. Most data used in our calculations come from the JPL’s Small Body Database and the Minor Planet Center. The overwhelming majority of asteroids have no spectral classification and are missing other important data attributes. Without full information it is impossible to fully estimate the true value of an asteroid or the cost of mining it.” This is correct.
However, Asterank goes ahead and assigns dollar values to individual asteroids. It says it “applies accurate, up-to-date information from world markets and scientific papers. To ensure realistic estimates, data from meteorites on Earth and known reference asteroids heavily influence our calculations.”
Asterank claims it infers an asteroid’s composition from its spectra. Those inferences, “in conjunction with current market prices, determine potential value. Accessibility estimates are based primarily on delta-v, but…also incorporate orbital characteristics such as perihelion, aphelion, eccentricity, and period. Profit and ROI calculations are a combination of accessibility and value. The formula strikes a balance between high value and high distance and energy expenditure. Mining costs are factored in as a flat percentage of potential value.”
Sounds like fancy guesswork to me.
I’ve shared my thoughts about asteroid mining on this blog before. The rationale for asteroid mining offered by Lewicki and other advocates is that it will be necessary to support the human settlement of space. The idea of establishing a permanent and expanding human presence in space makes me queasy. I’d be more deeply disturbed by the idea of exploiting extraterrestrial resources for profit than I actually am if I believed it could ever be affordable.