On February 15 an asteroid named 2012 DA14 will pass very close to the Earth. It will swing within just 17,200 miles of the planet's surface, which is well within the orbit of the man-made geosynchronous satellites that orbit the Earth. By coming within just one-thirteenth the distance from the Earth to the moon, the asteroid will set a record for close approach by an object of its size.
This week Deep Space Industries (DSI), a company that wants to develop the technology to mine asteroids, made the somewhat melancholic estimate that DA14 could contain metals and propellant worth as much as $195 billion. Since the asteroid will fly by the Earth traveling at 17,400 miles per hour, however, it isn't practical to mine.
“While this week’s visitor isn’t going the right way for us to harvest it, there will be others that are, and we want to be ready when they arrive,” said Rick Tumlinson, Chairman of DSI. “Even with conservative estimates of the potential value of any given asteroid, if we begin to utilize them in space they are all the equivalent of a space oasis for refueling and resupply.”
NASA has estimated that DA14 is only about 150 feet across, but DSI believes that is still big enough to be worth billions. DSI "experts" estimate that if 10% of the asteroid were made of minable metals, they could be worth $130 billion. If another 5% of the asteroid could be mined for water, it could be used as $65 billion worth of rocket fuel in space.
DSI is hoping to begin space mining around the year 2020. In the meantime, the company will be sending "FireFly" probes to examine asteroids, and later "DragonFly" probes that will take samples of the asteroid.
NASA will also be sending probes to investigate asteroids before 2020. In 2016, the agency will launch the OSIRIS-REx probe, which will visit the Earth-threatening asteroid 1999 RQ36.