Scientists explore possibility of mining iron, nickel, cobalt-rich near-Earth asteroids

Illustration depicting the metal-rich asteroid Psyche. (Reference image by NASA).

A team of students co-led by University of Arizona’s planetary science associate professor Vishnu Reddy is studying metal-rich near-Earth asteroids, or NEAs, to explore the possibility that iron, nickel and cobalt could someday be mined for use on Earth or in Space.

In a paper published in the Planetary Science Journal, the researchers explain that these metal-rich NEAs were thought to be created when the cores of developing planets were catastrophically destroyed early in the solar system’s history.

In detail, the group is examining asteroids 1986 DA and 2016 ED85 and discovered that their spectral signatures are quite similar to asteroid 16 Psyche, the largest metal-rich body in the solar system.

Psyche, located in the main asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter rather than near-Earth, is the target of NASA‘s Psyche mission.

“Our analysis shows that both NEAs have surfaces with 85% metal such as iron and nickel and 15% silicate material, which is basically rock,” lead author Juan Sanchez said in a media statement. “These asteroids are similar to some stony-iron meteorites such as mesosiderites found on Earth.”

Exploring the mining potential of 1986 DA, the scientists found that the amount of iron, nickel and cobalt that could be present on the asteroid would exceed the global reserves of these metals.

Additionally, when an asteroid is catastrophically destroyed, it produces what is called an asteroid family – a bunch of small asteroids that share similar compositions and orbital paths.

The team used the compositions and orbits of asteroids 1986 DA and 2016 ED85 to identify four possible asteroid families in the outer region of the main asteroid belt, which is home to the largest reservoir of small bodies in the inner part of the solar system. This also happens to be the region where most of the largest known metallic asteroids including 16 Psyche reside.

“We believe that these two ‘mini Psyches’ are probably fragments from a large metallic asteroid in the main belt, but not 16 Psyche itself,” co-author David Cantillo said. “It’s possible that some of the iron and stony-iron meteorites found on Earth could have also come from that region in the solar system too.”

The paper’s findings are based on observations from the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility on the island of Hawaii.

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