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Asteroids

Asteroid mine illustration. Courtesy NASA
Summer 2016

The new frontier of asteroid mining

Meteorites can show our relationship with the solar system, but they also provide clues to the composition of asteroids both near and far. Those asteroids could be the next frontier for some space explorers.

Planetary Resources in Redmond is one of the private companies that sees potential in mining near-Earth asteroids for ice and rare metals. They plan to do it using technology we already have, inexpensively and on private rockets. CEO Chris Lewicki compares the hunt for asteroids to the American West.

“It’s like the first steam engines: not much to look at, but they helped us settle the West,” he says.

Using small … » More …

Asteroids thumb image
Summer 2016

Close Encounters from Outer Space

The errant asteroid hurtled through space at 40,000 miles per hour. Tumbling in a wild orbit, it glinted with sunlight as it neared the Earth. At 65-feet wide, the potato-shaped object should have been easily detected but no one saw it coming.

On the morning of February 15, 2013 the asteroid exploded with the force of 500 kilotons of TNT about 15 miles above the city of Chelyabinsk in the Russian Ural Mountains. The fireball was reportedly 30 times brighter than the sun. The shockwave blew out windows in hundreds of buildings and injured more than 1,500 people.

It was Earth’s most powerful meteor strike … » More …

First Words
Summer 2016

As above, here below

Early science fiction authors tossed around the idea of mining the asteroids near Earth decades ago. Asimov, Heinlein, Pournelle, and other sci-fi luminaries wrote the concept into their stories of robots and space-bound pioneers since the 1940s. As with many of those authors’ ideas, we’re on the edge of fiction becoming reality.

Companies such as Redmond-based Planetary Resources plan to send robot harvesters up to the asteroids, likely within a decade, to extract water and rare minerals. CEO Chris Lewicki told me they are already in the prospecting phase, sending satellites to probe for likely mining candidates. The conference room where we met has … » More …

Winter 2002

Don't panic yet

An asteroid may be heading for a collision with earth, reports a group of researchers including Washington State University’s Scott Hudson. Fortunately, the actual probability of a collision is only one-third of one percent, and we have 878 years to prepare.

In an article in the April 5 Science, scientists predict that Asteroid 1950 DA, about one kilometer in diameter, could hit earth in March 2880. Typically, it is very difficult to predict asteroid collisions this far into the future. However, by obtaining radar imagery of the asteroid, the researchers were able to model in detail the evolution of its orbit for the next several … » More …