Could We One Day Mine for Opals and Platinum in Space?

On July 19 a platinum-core asteroid dubbed the “trillion dollar baby” passed by Earth, and earlier in the month, Scottish scientists presented a report confirming the existence of opals on Mars—both reminders of the exciting science behind some of the most beautiful materials in our industry and promising proof of where future supplies might come from.

Asteroid 2011 UW158 is believed to be 1,500 feet across with a platinum core worth more than $5 trillion. It got tantalizingly close to Earth this week (well, relatively: It was 1.5 million miles away at its closest), but its platinum was far out of reach.

Planetary Resources is a company that wants to change that. This week it launched a spacecraft from the International Space Station to begin testing equipment, a small step toward its eventual goal of mining asteroids.

“You have to envision mining as a continuum of activity. During the California gold rush, mining initially was just walking up a mountain riverbed and looking for nuggets of gold,” president and chief asteroid miner Chris Lewicki told the Australian Broadcasting Company. “But, of course, over time we had to start developing better technology, like panhandling, pickaxes, stream shovels, all the way to centrifuges and the modern technology we use today. You can think of mining in space as following the same trajectory. We’ll do the easiest, most basic things initially.”

He said that the company’s first goal will be to find water, then iron, cobalt, and platinum. “This isn’t an activity that you’ll have to wait for your grandchildren to enjoy,” he said. “It is something we’ll see unfold in front of our eyes in the next several years.”

Meanwhile in Scotland, researchers discovered traces of fire opal in a meteorite from Mars. The meteorite, which is held by the Natural History Museum in London, is called Nakhla, named after the Egyptian town where it fell to Earth in 1911. Using a scanning electron microscope, scientists found small traces of opal in the rock. The findings were published recently in the journal Meteoritics and Planetary Science.

“The slice of Nakhla that we have is small, and the amount of fire opal we’ve found in it is even smaller, but our discovery of opal is significant for a couple of reasons,” Martin Lee, lead author of the paper on the meteorite, said in a statement. “Firstly, it definitively confirms findings from NASA’s imaging and exploration of the Martian surface, which appeared to show deposits of opal. This is the first time that a piece of Mars here on Earth has been shown to contain opal. Secondly, we know that on Earth opals like these are often formed in and around hot springs. Microbial life thrives in these conditions, and opal can trap and preserve these microbes for millions of years. If Martian microbes existed, it’s possible they too may be preserved in opal deposits on the surface of Mars. Closer study of Martian opals by future missions to Mars could well help us learn more about the planet’s past and whether it once held life.”

So: No space platinum or Martian opal will be coming to a case near you anytime soon. But what a tantalizing idea, that one day it might.