Asteroid Mining: Metals are Valuable, but Water is the Real Prize

4/24/12Follow @curtwoodward

Planetary Resources, the new company started by wealthy entrepreneurs and space experts to mine asteroids, hopes to make bundles of money by hauling precious metals like platinum back down to Earth.

But there’s something more basic that the company says is far more valuable: water.

Asteroids are known to carry stores of water, and drawing it out with teams of robotic miners could allow the company to create liquid hydrogen and oxygen in space—the basis of the best rocket fuel.

“Water is, in fact, the gateway material because it enables everything else,” Planetary Resources co-founder Eric Anderson says. After that source of rocket fuel is developed, he adds, “fuel is essentially free.”

Planetary Resources co-founder Peter Diamandis, who also is CEO of the X Prize Foundation, says a typical 50-meter asteroid of rock and ice—which can be heated to extract water—could have enough hydrogen and oxygen to power all of the flights in the history of the Space Shuttle program.

That points to a possible future of near-space fueling stations that could be used by government and private space exploration. The water also could be used in more pedestrian but necessary ways, like drinking and helping to grow food, Anderson says.

“It will literally open up the roadways to the rest of the solar system,” Anderson says. “It’s going to drastically reduce the cost of space exploration.”

The company’s founders and advisors talked extensively about their plans for the first time on Tuesday during a press conference at the Museum of Flight in Seattle. The company, founded quietly about two years ago, is based in nearby Bellevue, WA and already employs about two dozen engineers.

Planetary Resources says its plans could eventually create a “trillion-dollar industry.” Anderson, however says there’s no illusions about the difficulty involved. “There will be times that we fail. There will be times that we have to stop and pick up the pieces again. But we’re going to do it,” he says.

The company plans to launch its first exploratory telescope satellites in the next two years, Anderson says. Eventual teams of robotic miners could take many years, if not decades to become a reality. “Ultimately, our goal is to hopefully identify the first asteroids to prospect within the decade,” Diamandis says.

But Anderson became emphatic when he said that Planetary Resources was not an exercise in techno-gilded ego boosting.

“This company is about creating a space economy beyond the Earth. It’s about building real opportunity. It’s about doing real things in space to move the needle forward,” Anderson says. “It’s not about talk. There’s been plenty of that. We’re about doing.”

Planetary Resources’ roster of executives and investors reads like an all-star list of the traditional information technology industry and private space exploration, two areas of American society that have become closely intertwined as the country backs away from a robust government-led space program.

Just last year, billionaire Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen unveiled a new company, Stratolaunch, that aims to build the largest airplane in history to help enable private spaceflight. Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos and PayPal co-founder Elon Musk also are bankrolling private spaceflight ventures.

Diamandis gave a nod to those efforts in announcing his new company’s plans. Among the investors are Charles Simonyi, a former Microsoft software chief who has twice paid his way to space as a tourist aboard Russian craft. Anderson is a partner of Simonyi’s in a different company, Intentional Software.

Of course, water isn’t the only thing available in the skies. Valuable and rare elements like platinum, which are used in an array of industrial and energy applications, are abundant in some asteroids that are near the Earth. Such metals presently are worth about $1,500 an ounce, Anderson says, making them one of the few items that are profitable even with the vast costs of going into space in the first place.

“As we go into the future and bring back, eventually, these platinum group metals, we will create abundance,” Anderson says. An asteroid of about 80 meters in diameter could hold precious materials worth in the range of $100 billion, Anderson says.

The targets are orbiting rocks known as near-Earth asteroids. There are nearly 9,000 of them at a usable size right now, but scientists think there could be far more once exploration gets going and a system is developed.

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

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