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Asteroids: To Avoid, or to Exploit?

Updated Wednesday, 4th August 2004

Dave Rothery considers our choices - to deflect asteroids before they harm us - or to mine them for all they're worth

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If we discover that an asteroid is heading our way, should we take evasive action - or grab our mining equipment? While some people are making plans to save the world from a mass extinction, others are making plans to make a killing of a different sort.

After discovery of an Earth-crossing asteroid heading our way it usually takes several weeks before its orbit can be determined well enough to rule out a collision.

It is difficult to see what we could do about it were we to discover even a small asteroid above the critical 100 m size limit on a collision course. If small asteroids are rubble piles like their larger cousins are now known to be, then attempts to deflect them, say with nuclear devices, might simply disrupt them into several fragments. This might make the devastation even more widespread than it would otherwise have been, unless all the fragments were smaller than 100 metres.

The UK government set up a task group on potential hazardous asteroids, which reported in 2000. Unfortunately, the government has yet to act on most of the task group’s recommendations for improved detection and monitoring of asteroids. You can read their recommendations online.

Asteroid mining

On a more positive note, non-colliding near-Earth asteroids could prove to be of major economic benefit during industrial development of near-Earth space. Iron and stony asteroids could prove valuable not only for their primary metals such as iron and nickel but also because of their likely richness in platinum and related elements. Carbonaceous asteroids could turn out to be convenient sources of rocket fuel. The era of commercial investment in asteroid resources is about to dawn, and it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that somebody will be making a profit before 2020.

Who owns the asteroids?

The question of who actually legally owns the resources within any asteroid is not yet settled. An international treaty, ratified by the space-faring nations including the USA, states :
“Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.”

However, this does not preclude an individual person of a commercial organisation from staking a claim for ownership, and certainly does not rule out profit-making commercial enterprises. The legal situation is likely to remain uncertain until someone is actually in a position to exploit asteroid resources.

Interestingly though, an attempt by a Mr Nemitz of Nevada to charge NASA a fee of $20 for landing its NEAR-Shoemaker probe on the asteroid (433) Eros on the grounds that he had been the first person to stake a claim for ownership was recently rejected by the US courts.

Sooner or later, though, the ownership of these resource-packed rocks will move from a matter of idle speculation to one of actual speculation. The new Klondyke might just be over all our heads.

 

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