Billionaires want to open new mining frontier: asteroids
Published Tuesday, April 24, 2012 8:18PM EDT
Last Updated Saturday, May 19, 2012 8:07AM EDT
Some high-profile billionaires are hoping to open a new frontier in the mining sector -- outer space -- as they launch a new business venture to extract water and valuable minerals from asteroids.
The venture will cost them millions of dollars to set in motion, but they hope to recoup that money many times over by the end of the decade if all goes according to plan.
The new Seattle-based company, called Planetary Resources Inc., plans to send robotic ships into space to extract water and minerals such as platinum and gold from the giant space rocks. The water will be converted to rocket fuel.
The minerals are in high demand for their role in the manufacture of batteries and various electronic products. While the idea of extracting them from asteroids may sound fanciful, space experts say it has been bandied about for years because asteroids possess these minerals in abundance.
Planetary Resources is well-positioned to determine whether such a venture is possible. Founders Eric Anderson and Peter Diamandis are the men behind space tourism, selling rides to space for millionaires who can afford the trip.
And the company has deep pockets to fund the necessary technological innovation: It counts filmmaker James Cameron and Google CEO Larry Page and Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt among its high-profile investors.
Diamandis told a Seattle news conference Tuesday the company wants to tap into the "near-infinite" resources of space.
"We are going from a species that used to use only resources within a day's walk to a species that has access to resources on our planet, to a species now that has access to the resources in our solar system," Diamandis said.
Diamandis added later: "The Earth is feeling a resource pinch. And ultimately we have the ability to turn that which is scarce into abundance. And so now is the time that we need it most."
Kevin Shortt of the Canadian Space Agency says it's logical for such space exploration to move from the traditional space programs and into the hands of private industry. As NASA winds down its shuttle program and faces an unclear future, scientists will be looking to move to different countries or private companies that have clearly defined space exploration goals.
"They're seeing what's going on in the space agencies, most particularly in NASA and now even in the Canadian Space Agency … and a lot of these guys are just throwing their hands up into the air and saying, ‘Listen, if you guys aren't going to do it, we're going to do it,'" Shortt told CTV News Channel.
Asteroids are largely made up of rock and metal, and can be as large as 16 kilometres long. The first step for the company will be to launch a series of telescopes to search for asteroids it would like to mine. This could happen within the next 18 to 24 months.
In addition to minerals, the company will also seek to mine water, which can be converted in space to liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen for rocket fuel. The company's goal is to be able to carry the water to a point in space where it can be converted to fuel, and then be used to refuel commercial satellites or spaceships belonging to various space agencies.
The company's founders did not reveal their venture's exact price tag, but indicated that the exploratory telescopes will cost less than $10 million. The founders said that eventually, technological advances could bring the cost of their operation into the "single-digit millions."
In contrast, an upcoming NASA mission to bring 60 grams of an asteroid to Earth is costing the agency about $1 billion.
Anderson told reporters that the company is targeting asteroids that orbit closer to Earth, rather than those further away in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
He said the company's plan is three-fold: to develop an initial line of spacecraft to "prospect" for suitable asteroids, and then to launch those telescopes into space. Once the data from the prospecting missions is in, they hope to begin mining the most suitable asteroids.
The founders admitted that the company's goals go beyond opening up a new frontier in natural resources. The team also hopes to make money.
"We are going to bring the solar system into our economic sphere of influence," Anderson said.
Shortt said the company founders likely don't have all the answers yet, but that's the point of scientific exploration.
"These are all theories, and just like in science any theory is a theory until you go out and actually do it," Shortt said.
"What I actually hope to see happen is that these guys actually make a go of it, because even if they fail at their particular method of gaining access, they'll have gone and shown ‘Well, here's one way that doesn't work.'"
With files from The Associated Press