For centuries, humans have valued precious metals and gemstones, both for their aesthetic value and real world utility. They’re also coveted because of their relative scarcity on Earth. Despite the rarity of these elements on our planet, there are places in the known universe where these stones and jewels are considerably more abundant.
Many have speculated that humans could eventually tap the resources of space, from rare earth elements on the moon,to exploiting near-earth asteroids and cometsthat could reduce the cost and time involved for future missions to deep space. However, the current technologies prohibit the retrieval of these extraterrestrial resources, which have often only been observed through deep space telescopes and spectroscopy techniques.
This week, Asteroid 2005 YU55 will pass between the Earth and the Moon, and although experts say there is no chance the asteroid will hit our planet, it is also an unlikely candidate for mining resources. According to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory,2005 YU55 is classified as a C-type asteroid, which generally are composed of primitive materials such as hydrogen and helium, and are unlikely candidates for more complex elements such as precious metals.
Although human understanding of the Universe is limited on a level detailed enough to identify exact compositions of heavenly bodies, some studies have revealed promising results, pointing to vast riches of other worlds.
So, where are some of the richest known places in the Universe? Click ahead to find out.
By Paul Toscano
Posted 8 Nov 2011
Announced earlier this year was the discovery of a planet primarily made up of carbon and so dense that a large portion of it is likely composed of diamond. The international team of astronomers who made the discovery told the journal Science that they believe the planet is slightly more massive than Jupiter but more than 20 times as dense. They also believe that the planet is a remnant of a once massive star that has lost its outer layers to a pulsar — a small, rapidly spinning dead neutron star that emits bursts of radiation — which the planet currently orbits once every 130 minutes.
Using Jupiter’s mass as an indication, if the planet was made of solid diamond, it would ring in at 37.974 nonillion carats (1 nonillion = 1 with 30 zeros). Unfortunately, the planet is approximately 4,000 light-years away from Earth, which places it far out of reach of today’s technology.
A little closer to home than the Diamond planet is Titan, the largest moon of Saturn, which is between 1.2 billion and 1.7 billion miles from Earth, depending on the time of year. Titan is unique in the solar system for two reasons: It is the only moon to have a dense atmosphere and the only one to have stable bodies of liquid on its surface, with definitive lakes numbering in the hundreds found on the surface by the Cassini space probe.
Titan’s lakes are very different from those found on Earth, however. They are believed to hold liquid methane, otherwise known as natural gas. The Cassini observations revealed that some of Titan’s lakes are filled completely, while others are only partially filled, suggesting the planet experiences a “condensable-liquid hydrological cycle,” or rainfall composed of natural gas. Another hypothesis is that there is a subsurface liquid methane table, much like the water tables here on Earth. Some estimatethat the larger lakes on Titan independently contain more than 130 billion tons (6.3 quadrillion cubic feet) of natural gas, which is more than 31 times the total proven reserves found on Earth.
In his book, “Mining The Sky: Untold Riches of the Asteroids, Comets and Planets,”author John S. Lewis takes an in-depth look at the prospects for accessing resources in space. In one of his most dramatic estimates, he highlights the asteroid 3554 Amun, a metallic asteroid, as potentially having $20 trillion in gold beneath its surface, along with another $8 trillion in iron and nickel, $6 trillion in cobalt and $6 trillion in platinum.
The book, which was published in 1997, included estimates based on market prices at the time, which were close to one-sixth of 2011 prices. Any student of supply and demand would assume that if such an influx of precious metals were brought to the planet in abundance, prices for these metals would tank.
But is Lewis far off? Although his estimates likely can’t be verified without surface probes and sophisticated measurements, it may not be too far of a stretch. A new study this yearfound that gold on Earth’s surface was primarily brought to the planet by asteroids. The rationale is that when the molten earth was forming, the heavy metals, such as gold, sunk to the core and only after the surface cooled did metals remain near the surface. After the planet cooled, the only source of gold and other heavy metals was from outer space, most commonly from asteroids.
In 2006, astronomers at the Jodrell Bank Observatory discovered a massive cloud of methyl alcoholstretching over 288 billion miles in the W3(OH) region of our galaxy. The cloud of alcohol is in gas form, rotating around a central star in a stellar nursery where other stars are thought to be forming, and scientists studying the cloud hope that it will help them to better understand star formation.
Although the possibility of an enormous cloud composed of alcohol is tempting to some, unfortunately methyl alcohol (also known as wood alcohol or wood spirits) is toxic to humans and its prime use is for industrial applications including chemical manufacturing processes, aerosol propellant and the production of bio-diesel and gasoline additives. Pictured left is the W3(OH) region where the alcohol cloud was found. The cloud wraps around the stellar nursery, and it is represented by the green colors in the image.
Although water is abundant on Earth, there are places within our Solar System that are thought to potentially contain vast extraterrestrial water reserves.
One of the prime candidates for water in the Solar System is Europa, an icy moon of Jupiter. Europa is one of the smoothest known bodies in the Solar System, with a very small number of craters and other surface features primarily limited to cracks. Many believe that Europa is a prime candidate to have an extensive liquid ocean under its surface, with the heat generated from tidal flexingfrom its orbit around Jupiter. Some estimates place Europa’s underground oceans at 62 miles deep and suggest they may be salty.
Another prime candidate for water in our Solar System is in the largest known object in the asteroid belt and dwarf planet, Ceres. The results of a2005 study from Cornell Universityobserved the characteristics of Ceres in depth and predicted that the “miniplanet” could contain more frozen water than all of the fresh water on Earth. Unlike Europa, it is unlikely that Ceres, which is about the size of Texas, has any water in liquid form, since it is not large enough to have a heat-generating core. Water in space is generally found in ice form and is also thought to be present at the poles and permafrost of Mars.
One of the most valuable resources on Earth is energy, most of which, in some way or another, originated from the Sun. Across the Universe, stars are the primary generators of power and although energy is relatively abundant in space, it is certainly valued here on Earth.
The sun is a relatively small star, however, and some celestial bodies outdo it in several ways. The biggest known star is VY Canis Majoris, whose radius is estimated to be between 1,800 and 2,100 solar radii (comparison pictured left). If VY Canis Majoris was located in the current place of our Sun, the edges of the star would reach to the orbit of Saturn. The picture to the left gives a comparison between the Sun and Canis Majoris.
Another star that outdoes our Sun is known as R136a1, which is the most luminous and most massive star in the known Universe. The luminosity of R136a1 is approximately 8.7 million times greater than our Sun, while the mass stands at 265 times that of our Sun, capable of energy production many times greater than our local star.
Similar to the $20 trillion gold asteroid Amun, highly promising prospects for resources in the Solar System are in the asteroids, with M-type asteroids having the highest potential for rare elements. M-type asteroids have high concentrations of metals, including iron and nickel, and are the third most populous group of asteroids in the solar system.
Most asteroids in the Solar System are located in the asteroid belt, and the largest known object in this region is 16 Psyche, which comprises approximately 1 percent of the mass in the asteroid belt and is estimated to measure 214x181 kilometers. Observations of 16 Psyche reveal that it has an exposed metallic core and has a mass of 21.9 quitillion kilograms. If only a fraction of 16 Psyche’s total mass was iron ore, the amount contained in the asteroid could sustain global iron demand on Earth almost indefinitely. In 2010, estimated global iron production stood at approximately 2.4 million kilograms, according to the USGS.