If you're curious about the economics of asteroid mining, or you just want to get lost in a sea of asteroids, exoplanets and galaxies within the comfort of your own Web browser, Asterank is the website for you.
Asterank allows casual asteroid hunters to see how much any asteroid is worth if it were mined for its resources. Asteroids are rich in useful and often costly elements, from water to platinum. Asterank tracks, catalogs and ranks all known 600,000 potentially lucrative space rocks.
Software engineer Ian Webster created the project in 2012, and asteroid-mining company Planetary Resources acquired it in May 2013. Webster still maintains and updates the site.
How does it work?
Asterank uses data from JPL's Small Body Database and the Minor Planet Center to map the asteroids. To determine each asteroid’s potential worth, Asterank employs a formula based on accessibility to the asteroid as well as the cost versus value of mining it. The company uses a variety of sources, including economic reports to calculate the dollar figure.
Just how much is an asteroid worth?
The current most valuable asteroid listed is 511 Davida, a C-type asteroid with a diameter pushing 200 miles. It's located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter and is estimated to be valued more than $100 trillion. This isn't the most cost-effective asteroid to mine, however. That honor goes to 162173 Ryugu, which provides more bang for the buck, but will only yield $34.54 billion.
To calculate these values, Asterank says, "We've collected, computed or inferred important data such as asteroid mass and composition from multiple scientific sources. With this information, we estimate the costs and rewards of mining asteroids." You can also view the easiest asteroids to get to, those with upcoming passes near Earth or the smallest — if asteroid size doesn't matter to you.
If you're less concerned with the value of asteroids but still interested in what's out there in our solar system, you can access the population of asteroids by using Asterank's Full 3-D View. It's a mesmerizing moving image that you can rotate and zoom in or out of.
Do you want to be a citizen scientist?
Aterank's Discovery mode allows viewers to crowdsource the hunt for asteroids. You can look at sky survey images and search for a dot that moves from image to image. The non-static dot might be an asteroid. If you're the first person to discover an asteroid, you get to name it. (But be sure to brush up on asteroid-naming rules before setting your heart on a name for your pet space rock.)
As of this post, Asterank says that 385,764 images have been reviewed with 16,190 potential asteroids noted by 2,330 users.
Asterank doesn't stop at asteroids
The exoplanet view shows a bright neon visualization of all the exoplanets in the Milky Way that the Kepler space telescope has discovered. Launched in 2009, NASA's Kepler Mission seeks to discover Earth-like planets. According to NASA, "The challenge now is to find terrestrial planets (i.e., those one half to twice the size of the Earth), especially those in the habitable zone of their stars where liquid water might exist on the surface of the planet."
For another mind-blowing experience, try the dark matter view. This view is of a portion of the Millennium Run, which is a supercomputer simulation of 0.01 percent of the estimated 170 billion galaxies in the universe. Asterank's dark matter view shows 5 million of these galaxies — an impressive portion. Webster says on his website, "This is by far the most GPU-intensive simulation I've done. It won't run well without an okay graphics card. And it definitely won't run on your phone."
For an immersive and visually cool scientific experience, check out Asterank and browse the skies with the click of your mouse. It just might inspire a career in asteroid-mining.