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Prospecting in Space: Hunt Begins for Precious Commodities

As NASA surveys moon, private firms plan similar efforts.

Lunar scientist Alan Binder is nothing if not ambitious.

His on-the-cheap Lunar Prospector spacecraft is today settling into a polar orbit around the moon, yet he's already sketching plans for 10 more moon missions. Unlike this mission in partnership with NASA, any follow-on flights won't tap the US Treasury.

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"I want to continue commercially," he says, adding that he hopes to launch his next mission in the next year or two. Nor is he alone in his dream of private-sector space exploration.

James Benson, a former software executive, has a similar launch schedule for his Near-Earth Asteroid Prospector mission. There are indications that these cosmic rocks may contain treasure troves of water, cobalt, platinum, and gold. One of the goals of this mission is to establish the legal principle that asteroids and their resources can be claimed by private companies.

The notion of mining asteroids or the moon - long a staple of science fiction - is now closer to reality as low-cost technology brings space travel into the province of entrepreneurs.

"It's no longer an uphill battle to make your point" about the benefits of tapping resources in space, says Kent Joosten, chief engineer in NASA's exploration office at Johnson Space Center in Houston. "Now we're into the phase where we're asking: Where are they? What form are they in?"

These projects represent the first halting steps toward building a commercial space-exploration industry, based in part on the notion that if humanity is going to inhabit space, it will have to learn to live off the resources it finds beyond Earth.

If water is found on the moon, for example, that would mean that space missions would cost less than they would if everything had to be launched from Earth. The moon could supply the basic gases for rocket fuel, oxygen for life support, and construction materials for colonies.

One of the Lunar Prospector's objectives is to build a global map of the moon's composition. Scientists would like to know whether frozen water exists in deep craters at the moon's poles. Water contains the elements for making rocket fuel. Lunar Prospector also is expected to provide information about surface deposits of such materials at titanium, aluminum, and silicon.

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At the same time, NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin has been pushing for more opportunities to involve the private sector in space science efforts. Under the "Discovery" program, which supports smaller, more frequent, less expensive space science missions, scientists who propose missions can either tap NASA facilities to build their spacecraft or private aerospace companies such as Lockheed Martin, which built Lunar Prospector. Recently, NASA reportedly clarified its Discovery policy to include science missions that would piggyback on purely commercial launches.

WHICH suits Mr. Benson just fine. In addition to the three instruments his Near Earth Asteroid Prospector (NEAP) craft will carry to detect resources, it also will have room for instruments from paying customers. The craft also will carry deployable canisters that can either be placed in solar orbit or sent to the surface of NEAP's target asteroid. Thus, he hopes to turn a profit not only on the sale of information he collects, but also on the sale of "space" on his craft for other's experiments.

Benson estimates the total cost of the mission at $50 million, less than half the price of NASA's Near-Earth Asteroid Rendezvous mission, whose spacecraft is now bound for 433 Eros.

One of the key ingredients NEAP's backers would like to find is water. Many of the near-earth asteroids are thought to be the core of long-dead comets. If these cores still contain water ice, they too could be tapped for the hydrogen and oxygen used to make rocket fuel, as well as for oxygen, according to John Lewis, a planetary scientist at the University of Arizona and an adviser to the company behind the NEAP craft, SpaceDev.

In addition, asteroids are believed to contain vast amounts of pure iron, nickel, cobalt, platinum, and even gold. Even the smallest known metallic asteroid, he says, contains "several times more metal than the total amount that has been mined and processed in the history of mankind on Earth."

"The nice thing about what we're doing, we believe, is that we can make money flying resource assessment missions," Benson says, with governments as initial customers for the information. He notes that under the federal National Space Policy, for example, the government is directed to buy commercially available data whenever possible.

Over the long term, space-based resources could dramatically cut the cost of building structures such as satellites designed to beam energy to Earth for use as electricity. "Each satellite would weigh 50,000 tons, so it makes much more sense to bring material from the moon or asteroids to use for building them," says Mike Duke, a scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston.

But for Earth-bound customers, it's cheaper to mine most minerals here than in space.

Yet Benson insists that "at some point, mining on Earth will no longer be economically feasible because of the environmental damage it does," he says. "Who's going to be there with the information on space-based sources? We will."

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