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UA professors seek resources on asteroids

By Michael Lafleur
Arizona Daily Wildcat
October 9, 1998
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Mining asteroids may not have worked well for Bruce Willis in "Armageddon," but one UA planetary scientist says it's worth a try.

John Lewis, chairman of the "Space: The Revolution is Now!" conference, said he endorses the exploitation of resources on asteroids.

The meeting, which runs until Sunday in Los Angeles, brings leading researchers together to discuss asteroids. It is sponsored by the Space Frontier Foundation, a group that advocates the private development of space.

"The government has perpetually increased the price of launching for 30 years," Lewis said. "The most important single thing to realize about NASA is that as a government agency, they have a need to maintain a large budget."

It costs $10,000 to launch one pound of matter into space, but could be lowered to as little as $200 in private hands, Lewis said. The high cost of bringing air and water on long space missions could be reduced if resources were extracted from nearby asteroids, he said.

Several thousand billion tons of water exist on asteroids, which could be converted into oxygen, Lewis said.

About 90 percent of asteroids also contain an abundance of minerals, such as platinum group metals. Because those minerals are rare on Earth, they cost between $250 to $1,000 per ounce.

Since asteroids have smaller masses than the Earth, mining and extracting metals is easier. Iron, nickel and cobalt are the most commonly found minerals in asteroids, Lewis said.

UA planetary science professor Tom Gehrels, founder of the University of Arizona "Space Watch" program, will also speak at the conference.

"Space Watch" is a "leading program" that looks at asteroids and comets that threaten the Earth, Lewis said.

Jim Scotti, a "Space Watch" researcher, said the program finds about 30 near-Earth asteroids each year. A near-Earth asteroid is an object that will pass within 50,000 miles from the planet.

"We've been on the hunt for asteroids since the early 1980s," he said. "Every month we discover literally thousands of asteroids."

If a large enough asteroid were to come into contact with the Earth or its atmosphere, the results could be disastrous, Scotti said.

He and his colleagues watch objects as large as 5- to 10 meters in diameter impact Earth about 10 times each year. They are not big enough to cause significant damage, though, Scotti said.

If a 1-kilometer object impacted the Earth, it would throw up enough debris to create a nuclear-winter-like effect that could last a decade and devastate a region the "size of a state," he said. A 10-kilometer asteroid would kill about 70 percent of Earth's species - 99 percent of life on the planet.

Lewis said the formation of a new grant-giving organization called "The Watch" will be announced during the forum.

In addition to "The Watch," the Space Frontier Foundation has developed another organization called "Finds." That program, which has raised $15 million, recently gave $60,000 to the UA chemistry department for the extraction of metals from meteorites.

"We're hoping that the (Watch) foundation will be able to collect several million dollars the next several months," Lewis said. "A small amount of money put in the right hands could payoff handsomely."

Michael Lafleur can be reached via e-mail at Michael.Lafleur@wildcat.arizona.edu.