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The grizzled asteroid miner is a stock character in science fiction. Now, a couple of recent events -- one legal and the other technological -- have brought asteroid mining a step closer to reality.

The legal step was taken when the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee passed a bill titled H.R. 2262--SPACE Act of 2015. The bill has a number of measures designed to facilitate commercial space development, including a provision that gives individuals or companies ownership of any material that they mine in outer space. According to one estimate, asteroid mining could ultimately develop into a trillion-dollar market.

The technological development is a new generation of gamma-ray spectroscope that appears perfectly suited for detecting veins of gold, platinum, rare earths and other valuable material hidden within the asteroids, moons and other airless objects floating around the solar system -- just the type of "sensor" that will be needed by asteroid miners to sniff out these valuable materials.

The concept was developed by a team of scientists from Vanderbilt and Fisk Universities, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Planetary Science Institute.

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