Asteroid mining is going to be a thing, and this is why

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Our next gold rush won’t be for gold, but it will be in space.

Asteroids can either be worthless or insanely valuable. There are some that are little more than rocky space refuse and some rich in carbon, water or metals like platinum and palladium—which you’d have to dig about 3,700 miles for on Earth. We can’t exactly sift through space or go through the galaxy using one of those metal detectors you always see someone getting false alarms with at the beach, but what we can do is go prospecting.

Mining asteroids is the industry of the future, if you ask Smithsonian astrophysicist Martin Elvis, who believes it can “revolutionize our exploration of the solar system, of the universe,” as he said at the recent Dawn of Private Space Science Symposium.

Elvis believes that digging up asteroid pay dirt (or metal) will shoot us straight into the space age by launching a space economy of galactic proportions and lowering space research and exploration costs. SpaceX and other private space exploration companies are already making these endeavors more financially manageable before takeoff. Because when you’re doing science that involves things floating outside Earth’s atmosphere, the tab for equipment and transportation can be astronomical.

So how exactly are we going to figure out which asteroids are proverbial diamonds in the rough?

Astronomers can initially scope out asteroids with midsize telescopes that can detect them in about a minute, such as the 6.5-meter Magellan telescopes, ruling out most of the ones that are junk just by their drab gray color. With just a few nights of asteroid hunting a year, at least 300 candidates could be observed and have their possible value determined. About 85% are worth absolutely nothing. Those with potential would be prospected by small exploratory probes that would use previously collected data on their sizes and orbits in order to locate them.

Another plus of asteroid mining is easier access to metals you’d almost literally have to journey to the center of the Earth for. Platinum, palladium and other precious metals have long since been dissolved in iron and drawn toward the core of our planet, but are much closer to an asteroid’s surface. Asteroids have been banged around so much that even though they started out with these metals melting in iron and sinking to the center, smashing into objects in space again and again has unearthed some very valuable layers.

When Elvis first tried to convince asteroid-mining companies Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries about the benefits of remote prospecting, they were skeptical, but one (which remains undisclosed) is now considering a blastoff.