Successfully completing a human mission to Mars is no small feat, but there are those who are up for the challenge through what’s called asteroid mining.

Asteroids – rocky fragments that circle the sun – are a potential source of water, oxygen, and other elements that could supply the Mars mission with fuel and life support instead of resources being lugged from Earth.

Asteroid mining has garnered interest in making the first Mars mission possible given that the journey to the Red Planet, which is about 140 million miles away, could take over six months each way. A mission to the moon, on the other hand, can be completed in three to four days.

Asteroids are hundreds of thousands in space, ranging from massive boulders to mini-planets.

According to NASA Mars mission manager Chris Lewicki, his company Planetary Resources – a Seattle-based firm where he is chief engineer – can accomplish the difficult and highly expensive task and establish the first asteroid mine in five to 10 years.

Lewicki said his company can prove the technology and deliver the first liter, barrel, and ton of water “to power the future economy in space.”

Business tycoon Richard Branson, Google executives Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, and filmmaker James Cameron are among the big-name investors of Planetary Resources, which finds a likely competition in newer companies such as California-based Deep Space Industries.

Both firms will harness robotic spacecraft to set up the first asteroid mine and are currently preparing their individual space probes.

NASA, which targets a human mission on Mars by the middle of 2030s, is also exploring asteroids as a source of sustenance outside Earth.

The space agency seeks to use a robotic spacecraft to capture a boulder from the surface of a near-Earth asteroid (more than 12,000 currently identified) and move it into a stable orbit around the moon. The plan is dubbed as the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) and targeted to be done by 2020.

The next step once the asteroid boulder has been brought into the moon’s orbit is to launch the Orion spacecraft by 2020s, the same one created to visit land on Mars.

Asteroid mine missions – estimated to be greatly lucrative with over $100 billion worth of materials from a single 80-meter asteroid – have raised the issue of the legality of space mining, where the United Nations’ 1966 treaty on outer space states that any nation cannot own a space territory.

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