James D. Burke and Erik M. Conway
The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) of the California Institute of Technology had its origins in a student project to develop rocket propulsion in the late 1930s. It attracted funding from the U.S. Army just prior to U.S. entry into World War II and became an Army missile research facility in 1943. Because of its origins as a contractor-operated Army research facility, JPL is the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) only contractor-operated field center. It remains a unit of the California Institute of Technology. In the decades since its founding, the laboratory, first under U.S. Army direction and then as a NASA field center, has grown and evolved into an internationally recognized institution generally seen as a leader in solar system exploration but whose portfolio includes substantial Earth remote sensing.
JPL’s history includes episodes where the course of the laboratory’s development took turning points into new directions. After developing short-range ballistic missiles for the Army, the laboratory embarked on a new career in lunar and planetary exploration through the early 1970s and abandoned its original purpose as a propulsion technology laboratory. It developed the telecommunications infrastructure for planetary exploration too. It diversified into Earth science and astrophysics in the late 1970s and, due to a downturn in funding for planetary exploration, returned to significant amounts of defense work in the 1980s. The end of the Cold War between 1989 and 1991 resulted in a declining NASA budget, but support for planetary exploration actually improved within NASA management—as long as that exploration could be done more cheaply. This resulted in what is known as the “Faster Better Cheaper” period in NASA history. For JPL, this ended in 2000, succeeded by a return to more rigorous technical standards and increased costs.
Since the early 1990s, in analytical reviews, experts have increasingly been paying attention to the growing scarcity of rare and rare earth metals (REM) necessary for the development of advanced technologies in modern industry. The volume of the world market has increased over the past 50 years from 5,000 to 125,000 tons per year, which is explained by the extensive use of REM in the rapidly developing areas of industry associated with the advancement of high technology. Unique properties of REM are primarily used in the aerospace and other industrial sectors of the economy, and therefore are strategic materials. For example, platinum is an indispensable element that is used as a catalyst for chemical reactions. No battery can do without platinum. If all the millions of vehicles traveling along our roads installed hybrid batteries, all platinum reserves on Earth would end in the next 15 years! Consumers are interested in six elements known as the platinum group of metals (PGM): iridium (Ir), osmium (Os), palladium (palladium, Pd), rhodium (rhodium, Rh), ruthenium (ruthenium, Ru), and platinum itself. These elements, rare on the Earth, possess unique chemical and physical properties, which makes them vital industrial materials. To solve this problem, projects were proposed for the utilization of the substance of asteroids approaching the Earth. According to modern estimates, the number of known asteroids approaching the Earth reaches more than 9,000. Despite the difficulties of seizing, transporting, and further developing such an object in space, this way of solving the problem seemed technologically feasible and cost-effectively justified. A 10 m iron-nickel asteroid could contain up to 75 tons of rare metals and REM, primarily PGM, equivalent to a commercial price of about $2.8 billion in 2016 prices.
However, the utilization of an asteroid substance entering the lunar surface can be technologically simpler and economically more cost-effective. Until now, it was believed that the lunar impact craters do not contain the rocks of the asteroids that formed them, since at high velocities the impactors evaporate during a collision with the lunar surface. According to the latest research, it turned out that at a fall rate of less than 12 km/s falling body (drummer) can partially survive in a mechanically fractured state. Consequently, the number of possible resources present on the lunar surface can be attributed to nickel, cobalt, platinum, and rare metals of asteroid origin. The calculations show that the total mass, for example, of platinum and platinoids on the lunar surface as a result of the fall of asteroids may amount more than 14 million tons. It should be noted that the world’s known reserves of platinum group metals on the Earth are about 80,000 tons.