Asteroid Mining? Yeah, It’s Possible—With Enough Money

4/23/12Follow @curtwoodward

An all-star group of investors, entrepreneurs, and space experts is gearing up to unveil Planetary Resources, a new company that focused on mining asteroids for precious elements. It’s not the first time that wealthy people have set their sights on a space mission, but this one is definitely more complicated than sending a few space tourists into orbit.

But is space mining really that close to being a reality? Absolutely, says University of Washington aeronautics and astronautics professor Adam Bruckner, who has studied the subject. It just takes cash, and plenty of dedication. “You wouldn’t need to invent anything. We could do everything with existing technology—look, we went to the moon back to the `60s,” Bruckner says.

Last week, Bellevue, WA-based Planetary Resources said it would be announcing plans to “expand Earth’s resource base” and “overlay two critical sectors—space exploration and natural resources—to add trillions of dollars to the global GDP.”

“This innovative startup will create a new industry and a new definition of `natural resources,’” a memo from the company said. The press conference is scheduled for Tuesday morning at the Museum of Flight in Seattle.

Co-founder Eric Anderson added even more detail Monday afternoon when, in an interview with The New York Times, he described Planetary Resources’ mission as sending robotic mining equipment to nearby asteroids to draw out precious metals or even iron and water that could be used for further space exploration.

The company could exploit asteroids that drift close to Earth, or attempt to pull them into an orbit near the planet, he said. The company plans to send a telescope to investigate asteroids in the next two years, he said, followed by exploratory missions. But actual mining is a lot further off.

“To do large, large-scale mining of asteroids, you’re talking about decades,” Anderson told the Times. The company, he said, already employs about 25 engineers.

Bruckner points out that the idea of asteroid mining is nothing new—NASA has explored the idea of sending astronauts to perform such tasks. “But I think if we sit here and wait for NASA to do such a mission, we’ll all grow very old,” he says. “And so, these guys have decided, `Hey, let’s not wait for NASA. Let’s just do it ourselves.”

Mining on asteroids could be easier than doing so on a nearby planet because an asteroid has weak gravity. That means less energy is needed to launch a vehicle for its return flight to Earth. And the right asteroids could be rich in valuable elements.

“The Holy Grail here is that we’ll be able to find materials which are relatively rare on earth—titanium, platinum, cobalt, rhodium, and the rare-Earth metals that are so important in the newer energy systems,” Bruckner says. “Even a small asteroid of even a kilometer would contain billions of tons of stuff that could be of interest.”

The other co-founder of Planetary Resources is Peter Diamandis, chairman and CEO of the X PRIZE Foundation, which finances contests for technological feats, including private space launches. “Since my childhood, I’ve wanted to do one thing—be an asteroid miner,” Diamandis told Forbes earlier this year.

Also involved in Planetary Resources are Chris Lewicki, who was a Mars mission manager for NASA, and former astronaut Tom Jones. Investors include Google’s Eric Schmidt and Larry Page, early Google investor Ran Shriram, Hollywood director James Cameron, and former Microsoft software chief Charles Simonyi, who has already paid his way onto spaceflights twice.

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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