Earlier this month, an asteroid whipped past the Earth. Normally this isn’t a particularly special phenomenon — but this wasn’t your typical asteroid. Unlike all the other space rocks that come hurtling past our home planet every month, the asteroid known as 2011 UW158 happens to contain somewhere around $5.4 trillion dollars worth of platinum, give or take a few billion.
When it flew by on June 19, it missed Earth by about 1.5 million miles — roughly six times the distance between our planet and the moon. That might seem like a huge stretch of space — and it is — but it’s also remarkably close in when you consider how unimaginably massive the universe is. It’s so close, in fact, that scientists were able to observe the flyby as it happened.
Using images that were reconstructed from radar scan data, NASA was actually able to put together a short video of the rock as it zoomed by. It’s incredibly grainy and low-quality, but even so, you can clearly make out the rock’s shape and spin.
You can’t tell just from the footage, but 2011 UW158 measures about 900 by 1,800 feet in size, and has an unusually fast spin, making a full rotation about once every 37 minutes. Most asteroids are really just a bunch of smaller rocks held together in a loose cluster by gravity, and therefore can’t handle that kind of spin, but UW158 can — which suggests that there’s something other than gravity holding it together.
The asteroid’s rare composition makes it a prime candidate for mining, but unfortunately, the world’s premiere asteroid mining company, Planetary Resources, wasn’t quite ready to lasso it. The company was only recently able to get its first spacecraft into orbit, and the craft they sent up is designed to do just a few basic tests equipped to conduct a few basic tests at this point.
We probably won’t have the technological capabilities to launch a legit space-mining operation for at least a few more decades, but by the time that 2011 UW158 circles back close to earth in 2108, there’s a good chance that Planetary Resources won’t be the only outfit waiting to catch it.
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