There may be space rocks loaded with platinum and gold, but mundane elements may be the real moneymakers in space, said Mark Sykes, CEO and director of the Tucson-based Planetary Science Institute.
Sykes is an adviser to Planetary Resources, the Seattle-based group of wealthy entrepreneurs who announced a plan Tuesday to mine asteroids for fortune and scientific advancement.
"I'm primarily an advocate for water as the most important substance we could acquire, primarily because of its use as a fuel and for sustaining life," said Sykes.
The reason should be clear to Tucson residents, Sykes said. "When you're in the middle of a desert, water is very valuable, and space is the ultimate desert."
For a measure of how precious it would be, consider the cost of getting itt into space from Earth. "It costs $20,000 a pound to bring anything up," Sykes said. A gallon of water weighs more than 8 pounds.
Water could be separated into its constituent elements of hydrogen and oxygen in space and used for fuel, Sykes said.
The infrastructure for doing that, and the need for refueling in space, may be a long way off, said Sykes, but the group plans to launch a telescope into space within two years to begin a search for lucrative targets.
Ed Beshore, co-principal investigator for an upcoming NASA robotic mission to mine an asteroid, said he is "very enthusiastic about the role of private enterprise looking at something like this and saying there may be a business model."
Beshore joined principal investigator Dante Lauretta on the OSIRIS-Rex mission in January after the September death of Mike Drake who had originally headed the mission with Lauretta. All three are affiliated with the University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Lab.
Beshore, who formerly headed the Catalina Sky Survey and its search for near-Earth objects, warned that the quest to mine asteroids is "fraught with all kinds of concerns and difficulties."
Beshore said the OSIRIS-Rex mission, set to blast off in 2016 for a 2019 rendezvous with asteroid RQ36, will help pave the way for future missions by dealing with those complexities.
"There are a lot of things man hasn't done yet around these small bodies. Maneuvering around a small body with a very slight gravitational force is not like flying to Mars or Jupiter. It's a much more finesse-kind of operation."
The $1 billion OSIRIS-Rex mission will be run from Tucson by the Lunar and Planetary Lab.
It will carry instruments that will spend six months mapping and characterizing the asteroid.
It will then use a robotic arm to gather a 2-ounce sample of the asteroid and return it to Earth in 2023.
NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden says on the NASA website that "robotic missions like these will pave the way for future human space missions to an asteroid and other deep-space destinations."
Sykes said his group will also piggyback on knowledge gained from that mission.
"The more information that can be gained from any source the better," he said.
Sykes said the Planetary Resources team "accepts the risks and the potential of failure. This is not a 99-percent-guaranteed, in-the-bag endeavor. It's a high-risk, high-return venture."
Calling all amateur asteroid trackers / A3
"I'm primarily an advocate for water as the most important substance we could acquire, primarily because of its use as a fuel and for sustaining life. When you're in the middle of a desert, water is very valuable, and space is the ultimate desert."
Mark Sykes, CEO and director of the Tucson-based Planetary Science Institute
DID YOU KNOW?
OSIRIS-Rex stands for Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security-Regolith Explorer.
Regolith is a layer of loose, heterogeneous material, such as dust, soil and broken rock.
Contact reporter Tom Beal at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4158.