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What do you need to build a 'Star Wars' Death Star? An asteroid

Asteroids contain many of the raw materials necessary to build the fictional Star Wars weapon. But that's just one part of rising interest in the public and private space industry regarding asteroids.

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"Darth Vader" speaks from the stage at the 2011 Scream Awards, Saturday, Oct. 15, 2011, in Los Angeles. To build a Death Star, it would have to be done with an asteroid, a NASA engineer suggests.

(AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)

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A NASA engineer says that we could one day build a Death Star of our own. And the best way to construction the fictional Death Star of the “Star Wars” universe, is to use something already floating in space: asteroids.

“[An asteroid] could provide the metals,” Brian Muirhead, chief engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told Wired. “You have organic compounds, you have water—all the building blocks you would need to build your family Death Star.”

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In addition to promoting his own work at NASA, Mr. Muirhead is tapping into the publicity around the next Star Wars film – and public support for a Death Star.

In 2012, a whitehouse.gov petition, which garnered nearly 35,000 signatures, asked that the White House invest in and begin building a Death Star by 2016.

But the White House’s official response to the petition was appropriately tongue in check. The response, titled, "This isn't the Petition you're looking for" gave these excuses for turning down the project:

  • The construction of the Death Star has been estimated to cost more than $850,000,000,000,000,000. We're working hard to reduce the deficit, not expand it.
  • The Administration does not support blowing up planets.
  • Why would we spend countless taxpayer dollars on a Death Star with a fundamental flaw that can be exploited by a one-man starship?

Death Star or no, asteroids are of growing interest to scientists and corporations.

Muirhead is also the director of NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), which is working to one day obtain large boulders from near-Earth asteroids and move them into orbit around the moon, where they could then be more easily studied by astronauts.

NASA announced ARM in March 2015, and intends to officially launch the program in the year 2020. The mission seeks to contribute to the quest for Mars by eventually reducing astronauts’ dependency on planet Earth: getting to Mars becomes more cost-efficient if the area around the moon, called “cis-lunar space,” is used for refueling and supplies, rather than relying on Earth. 

Private space companies have also joined the race to cultivate and mine asteroids.

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Planetary Resources, an asteroid mining company, has already sent several exploratory satellites into space. In July, the company received two grants from NASA to further their research, including the development of a 3D-printed integrated structure and propulsion system, and plans to launch a satellite aimed at an as-yet unselected target asteroid in 2018.

The company is interested in mining asteroids for water and potential minerals, the company’s CEO, Chris Lewicki, told Space.com, and sees a promising future for the fledgling industry.

"We have every expectation that delivering water from asteroids and creating an in-space refueling economy is something that we'll see in the next 10 years – even in the first half of the 2020s," Mr. Lewicki said.

In November of this year, Congress passed a bill called the US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act that seeks to regulate this emergent field. The bill, signed into law by President Barack Obama, will not only allow private companies to mine asteroids, but also claim ownership to whatever raw materials they find there.

"This legislation establishes the same supportive framework that created the great economies of history, and will encourage the sustained development of space," Eric C. Anderson, Planetary Resources co-founder, told Tech Times.