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Mining asteroids a serious projection

PLEASANT HILL — When people gather here to talk about mining, it's usually coal mining. This week, the discussion is out of this world.

The 18 people attending the “Asteroid Mining ‘X' Seminar” at Shaker Village are discussing extracting natural resources from the thousands of little planet-ettes found in our solar system.

No kidding.

Getting to an asteroid, mining it, and getting back, would be the (relatively) easy part, the participants said.

“The technology is here. The issue is how can you make it profitable,” said Neville Marzwell, who is manager of Advanced Concepts & Technology Innovations, at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The discussion Tuesday ranged from estimates of how many billions of dollars worth of platinum could come from a single asteroid, to setting up low earth orbit stations that would use hydrogen or oxygen extracted from asteroids to add fuel to rockets after they had escaped Earth's gravity.

There also were plenty of questions. Who would finance such unorthodox ventures? Who owns asteroids? If a company went prospecting and found a particularly valuable asteroid, how would it keep away claim-jumpers? What would be the role of government? Would the lead be taken by the United States? The Chinese?

The primary organizer of the conference is the Kentucky Science and Technology Corp., a non-profit that takes pride in looking at things from different and innovative angles. The seminar began Monday and concludes Wednesday.

Kris Kimel, KSTC president, said the purpose of the seminar was “to bring together some really bright people” to explore making asteroid mining feasible.

Besides Marzwell, the group includes John S. Lewis, author of Mining the Sky and professor emeritus at the University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory; Jeffrey Manber, former president of Mir-Corp, which tried to commercialize the old Russian space station, and Brad Blair, a Colorado engineer whose e-mail handle is “planetminer.”

Blair talked about mining a particular asteroid, called 99942 Apophis, which just might collide with Earth in 2036. Maybe a large chunk could be taken from the asteroid for mining, he said, and the rest moved far, far away from us.

Lewis, a leader in the movement to use asteroids to benefit humans, said that with scientists sending spacecraft beyond Pluto, reaching an asteroid shouldn't be much of a problem.

“We're doing intercontinental flights; surely we can operate a bus to the airport,” he said.

Left to be decided is what will be the initial mining project -- the foot in the door. With the right combination of factors — perhaps a private company selling asteroid-derived fuel to the government rockets in space — mining asteroids could be a reality in as little as four years.

“The first chance we had to go to an asteroid and make a profit was in the 1970s,” Lewis said. “We're way, way, way behind.”

No matter how much catch-up there is to do, Lewis said, the project shouldn't be dominated by the government.

“You can imagine that if the Wright brothers had sold out to the U.S. government, we probably would still be flying on commercial biplanes owned by the government,” he said. “And we would be paying $10,000 a flight, and it would take several days to get from coast to coast.”