Today an asteroid, 2011 UW158, is passing within 2.4 million km of Earth. There are a lot of reports of this asteroid containing $5.4 trillion of platinum in its core. People seem to want to mine it, but how do they know there is so much platinum within it? They seem to have a fairly specific number.

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With all the hype in the news this was surprisingly hard to research for specifically 2011 UW158. I never did find a source for the claim on the value, though the Slooh Community Observatory put the claim at "\$300 billion to as much as \$5.4 trillion dollars worth of precious metals and minerals".

The answer basically seems to come down to: we've analyzed the composition of meteorites, meteorites come from asteroids, we can make a guess at which asteroids would match the composition of meteorites we've analyzed based on spectroscopy and visible characteristics (such as 2011 UW158 is spinning fast enough that if it were rocks simply held together by gravity it would have flown apart, indicating it must be melted together).

Research results:

A more general search turned up Review of Asteroid Compositions. To quote the summary at the top of the paper:

Most of our information on asteroid surface compositions comes from telescopic reflectance spectroscopy, and most of our information on asteroid bulk compositions has been determined from the study of meteorites.

With respect to platinum specifically I found this paper: The Role of Near-Earth Asteroids in Long-Term Platinum Supply

While a large part of that paper discusses the uses and sources of platinum on earth page 7 starts discussing planetary formation and asteroids. To summarize, the gravity of large bodies pulled platinum-group metals (PGMs) (and iron and nickel) into the core of the planets (which is why platinum is rare in the Earth's crust) but asteroids weren't big enough for gravity to separate their composition before they cooled.

Meteorite samples are the primary source of detailed data for asteroid chemical composition, especially trace metals. Platinum, rhodium, iridium, rhenium, osmium, ruthenium, palladium, germanium and gold are found in significant concentrations (ranging from 1.1-30.7 grams per ton for each metal) across a variety of meteorite samples attributed to the LL Chondrites (see Table 3).

And lower down:

Strong statistical continuity exists for the Chondrites examined by the planetary science community, providing a basis for the expectation that certain large asteroids match the chemical abundance of the meteorite samples (it is hypothesized that these asteroids are the source of the meteorites). However, without a sample returned from an asteroid, the evidence remains circumstantial. Detailed asteroid reconnaissance by spacecraft is has dramatically improved geologic models, but has only been carried out recently for a handful of asteroids. Spectral analysis of data from telescopic observation can sometimes be used to infer general geological characteristics such as bulk composition for newer asteroid discoveries.


Just for fun, here's a website that's dedicated to listing asteroids along with the estimated profit of mining them: asterank

  • Great answer and resources, thank you. Also, that asterank site is really cool! It's interesting to think about how much money could be in an asteroid, but I have to imagine that simply by bringing back the valuable material within them, the price would start to drop on those materials. – duzzy Jul 20 '15 at 2:32
  • This was actually discussed in the second paper I linked. Price would drop, but demand would go up as it did because platinum is used in a variety of "high-technology manufactured products" that would be economically feasible to produce in larger quantities were platinum not so expensive. – 1337joe Jul 20 '15 at 2:47
  • That makes a lot of sense. What I really liked from that paper was how it went on about so many different types of asteroids (edit: actually, that's the first paper). I didn't realize there were so many types, and that the scientists were able to determine about them what they have. – duzzy Jul 20 '15 at 3:34
  • Does anyone know what form these platinum group metals take? It matters a lot. 100ppm of native gold or platinum mixed in with river silt is very high value - because it is easy to extract. 100ppm of precious metal mixed within (alloyed within) nickel-iron alloys will be difficult and expensive to extract. – Ken Fabian May 21 at 21:53
  • @1337joe - reading your answer again it sounds like the Platinum Group Metals are found within nickel-iron - ie will be difficult to extract. Only within Ni/Fe or mostly, do you know? The presence of PGM's has been described as a defining marker of non-terrestrial origin for meteorites. – Ken Fabian May 22 at 4:18

Sorry to spoil everyone’s excitement, but one claim, credited to Mining.com, that the kilometer-wide asteroid might contain “up to 90 million metric tons of platinum and other precious metals” is wrong and is orders of magnitude too high. Assuming the asteroid to be roughly spherical and 3280 feet (1 kilometer) across and being the more uncommon “nickel-iron” type (having a specific gravity of about 7.5) as opposed to the more common “stony” type, it would have a total mass of about 3.9 billion metric tons.

Nickel-iron asteroids, based on similar compositions to recovered nickel-iron meteorites, are expected to have more than 95% of their weight in just the metals iron, nickel and cobalt. One good reference (http://authors.library.caltech.edu/51511/1/jgr4710.pdf ) states that the precious metals Ru, Rh, Pd, Ir, Pt are individually present in such meteorites in 1-10 ppm concentrations. For convenience let’s optimistically assume these five precious metals total 50 ppm, and then let’s double that to get 100 ppm to account for all the other trace elements that might be considered “precious metals”. The above considerations result in a net “precious metals” estimate of only 390,000 metric tons for the asteroid, a factor of about 230 lower than claimed by Mining.com. Of course, this assumes that nickel and cobalt are not viewed as precious metals, which I believe is true.

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    There is also a basic economic principle at work, which is that if you suddenly acquire a large amount of a precious metal, it will no longer be precious. As for instance the tip of the Washington monument was made of aluminum, at the time about as costly as silver. – jamesqf Jul 21 '15 at 19:42

Also notice that radar observations have shown that the asteroid contains no more metal than any usual rocky asteroid (see https://twitter.com/astrotweeps/status/865105034459189248 for example). The assumption that it's metallic was erroneous.

As a side note, all of this hand waving is based on the idea that we actually know how a particular meteorite/asteroid was formed. We don't.

People are making assumptions based on the accretion theory (and related), which is now coming under attack, quietly mind you, and may fall in our lifetime.

So, I would say the best answer to this is "No one has any serious notion of what the heck is inside any particular asteroid, unless they put sensors physically on top of the thing and prospect it". (radar observations are valued of course, however many materials could scatter or alter a radar signature form that far away).

If you are looking to invest in asteroid mining, don't do it unless they are saying they are going to do prospecting first. You'll be losing your money in a puff of smoke, most likely. You might win.. sure... but personally, I don't like playing the tables. The House always wins (tm).

The law of supply and demand has been proven true, that is why they call it a law. Demand for tulips caused the prices to rise to unbelieveable prices, one of the commonly mentioned "Bubbles" in economic history. The reason air is free is due to it being everywhere, if air was rare it would be something to pay for. Metals are higly susceptible to the laws of supply and demand, just as we are seeing with oil currently. Oil glut causes price drops. Steel is relatively cheap due to availabilty of iron ore. Diamonds command high prices because they are mostly controlled by a cartel. The uneducated masses who graduate our public schools are mostly unaware of simple economics. These ridiculous claims of value and quantity are made to part fools from their money. I see a public offering down the road.

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    What does this have to do with the amount of a metal within a rock? The question is asking primarily about the precision of the estimate, not the value of that estimated amount. – Nathan Tuggy Apr 23 '16 at 1:47

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