Asteroid Miners to Hitch Rides on Richard Branson’s New Rocket

7/11/12Follow @curtwoodward

Planetary Resources, a startup that hopes to mine precious materials from asteroids, is partnering with a leading name in private space exploration: Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.

The deal calls for Bellevue, WA-based Planetary Resources to use Virgin Galactic’s new LauncherOne spacecraft to send “constellations” of its telescopes into orbit near the Earth.

Those telescopes are the first wave of Planetary Resources’ long-term plan to mine valuable materials from asteroids located close (in galactic terms) to the planet.

After identifying resource-rich targets with telescope satellites, the young company plans to send robotic mining craft to the asteroids to extract the goods.

Here’s a mockup of the telescope satellite that Planetary Resources displayed at its announcement event this spring.

Planetary Resouces hopes to reap rare elements like platinum, which are used in an array of industrial and energy applications and are abundant in some asteroids found near Earth. But perhaps even more important will be the ability to harvest water, drawn out by melting the ice locked up in rocky asteroids.

When they unveiled the company’s mission earlier this year, Planetary Resources’ founders noted that water supplies could theoretically allow the company to create liquid hydrogen and oxygen in space—the basis of the best rocket fuel.

That could, in turn, lead to a kind of highway connecting refueling stations in space, with the fuel itself being rendered “essentially free,” as co-founder Eric Anderson has said.

All of this is a long ways off. Planetary Resources has previously targeted the first launches of its telescope satellites in the next two years, with hopes of identifying the first prospect for a mineable asteroid within the current decade.

It’s not clear whether the partnership with Virgin Galactic will change that two-year goal slightly, since Virgin says commercial flights of its new satellite-launching rocket are “expected to begin by 2016.”

Planetary Resources’ planned-for teams of robotic miners could take many years, if not decades, to become a reality. But getting lined up with a partner to send the satellites into space is a big step.

Virgin Galactic announced the LauncherOne rocket today at a big international aerospace industry show. Virgin says its rocket, which will be launched from a huge dual-fuselage aircraft, will make satellites much cheaper to send into space—less than $10 million, according to The Wall Street Journal’s report.

Here’s a photo of the setup, with the launcher suspended between the larger craft’s fuselages, as featured on Virgin Galactic’s promotional website.

Planetary Resources has a big-name cast of investors and advisers, including Google’s Eric Schmidt and Larry Page, early Google investor Ran Shriram, Hollywood director James Cameron, and former Microsoft software chief Charles Simonyi.

It also boasts space expertise, with X Prize Foundation CEO Peter Diamandis serving as co-founder and involvement from former NASA Mars mission manager Chris Lewicki and former astronaut Tom Jones.

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

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