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$195 BEEELLION asteroid approaching Earth

Too bad it's in an INCONVEEENIENT orbit

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

The pint-sized – in astronomical terms – asteroid that's scheduled to buzz the Earth this Friday may have a street space value of about $195bn.

"Unfortunately, the path of asteroid 2012 DA14 is tilted relative to Earth, requiring too much energy to chase it down for mining," say the wannabe space prospectors at Deep Space Industries (DSI), undoubtedly disappointed to watch that $195bn sail back off into space.

Not that DSI – or anyone else, for that matter – is quite ready to mine 2012 DA14. DSI plans to send its first FireFly probes to scout Near Earth Objects (NEOs) in 2015, to be followed by larger DragonFly probes in 2016, which will sample NEOs and return their booty to Earth, followed by actual mining operations beginning in 2020 – if all goes according to their ambitious plans, that is.

But, ready or not for actual asteroid material-acquisition missions, DSI is quite ready to project the value to be found in NEO-mining adventures.

"According to DSI experts," those experts humbly contend, "if 2012 DA14 contains 5 per cent recoverable water, that alone – in space as rocket fuel – might be worth as much as $65 billion. If 10 per cent of its mass is easily recovered iron, nickel and other metals, that could be worth – in space as building material – an additional $130 billion."

Seeing as how little is known about 2012 DA14 other than its path through space, those figures are, at best, ballpark estimates. Its mass could be as little as 16,000 tons or as, uh, massive as one million tons, the company said in an email. Since the range of 2012 DA14's diameter can only be pegged at being between 25 to 100 yards, more accurate estimations are impossible.

"Astronomers have measured how much light is being reflected from its surface," DSI says, "but the question mark is the reflectivity of that surface. If the surface is very dark, reflecting that much light means it must be a big object. Conversely, if the surface is light, even a small asteroid could reflect a lot of light."

If 2012 DA14 is, as is thought, an L-type asteroid, it would reflect about 20 per cent of the light that strikes it. "That would make its diameter about 50 yards and mass about 130,000 tons," said Stephen Covey, the company's director of research and development.

At that size, an asteroid may very well prove to be a cost-effective mining target, should vehicle and launch costs drop considerably by 2020, and in-space fabrication needs such as DSI envisions materialize.

And, of course, if a materials-rich asteroid happens to pass by Earth in a convenient orbit. ®

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