"Gold rush" in space? A look at asteroids' potential for wealth, destruction

(CBS News) We are "sitting ducks" when it comes to asteroids, according to CBS News contributor Michio Kaku, a physics professor at the City University of New York.

Congress is holding a hearing Tuesday on asteroids, as scientists say more can be done to stop them from smashing into the Earth.

The next asteroids, experts say, are expected to pass by Earth in 2029 and 2036. Kaku said on "CBS This Morning," "The asteroid Apophis (to arrive in 2026) -- it'll miss, but it's 1,000 feet across, it is a nation-buster. It'll take out England. It'll take out Germany. That's how big it is."

But while some on Earth want to stay as far as possible away from these rocky space projectiles, others are looking to get as close as possible. "We hope to land on it perhaps in 2029," Kaku said. "That's on the table. Landing on asteroid Apophis in 2029, just to get a sense of what it's like to encounter an asteroid up close and dirty."

But why get close to something with such potential for harm?

Because, according to Kaku, there's also real potential for gain in mining precious metals on asteroids. Kaku explained, "Private capitalists are saying, 'If NASA won't fund this thing, why not private enterprise?' If they get a piece of the action, that's going to be on the table as well, whether or not entrepreneurs can see a gold rush in outer space."

But right now, they don't have enough money to launch the mining endeavors. "Everyone is passing the tin cup right now asking for funds," Kaku said.

So right now, many have their eye on the skies, including former Congressman Bart Gordon, a lobbyist for Planetary Resources -- one of the companies that eventually wants to mine asteroids for rare metals. Gordon says there are lots of asteroids trained on Earth: "There are about 10,000 near-Earth asteroids that we're monitoring," he said, "And we assume there about a million more that we're not monitoring."

For more on asteroids, watch Chip Reid's full report in the video below.

Gordon added, "I'm not saying the world is going to come to an end, but it's a very serious problem, something could happen at any time."

Currently, the organization of Gordon participates in is tracking and assessing the danger of those near-Earth asteroids. Asked if this is science fiction -- or a real threat -- Gordon said, "There's no Buck Rogers in this movie. No, this is a real threat."

What can be done? Kaku said several ideas have been discussed, from deflecting asteroids to blowing them up. "The main idea now is to deflect it in deep space," Kaku explained. "All sorts of schemes are being proposed, tractor beams, maybe even painting it with silver paint, so light pressure will nudge it out of the way over several decades."

In the 1998 movie "Armageddon," the world is saved by using a nuclear bomb to blow up a huge asteroid heading for Earth.

Scientist Corey Powell, of Discover magazine, sees that as Hollywood fantasy, but he says deflecting an asteroid is possible. "If you were mapping all the asteroids methodically, you would know probably years -- maybe even decades ahead of time -- which one is going to hit. That gives you such a long lead time that you can just give that asteroid a tiny nudge. You don't need to send Bruce Willis with a giant nuclear weapon. In fact, that's almost exactly the wrong way you'd want to do this."

Some scientists have called for an infrared space telescope to track asteroids that could threaten the Earth and to develop a plan to deflect them. But Congress gives NASA only $20 million a year to study the threat -- a small fraction of what scientists say it would take.

For more with Kaku on the asteroid threat, watch the video in the player above.


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