A recently announced space venture backed by James Cameron, Google executives, and others isn't scheduled to formally announce its plans until later today, but as of late last night, the news is official: Planetary Resources, Inc. is fixing to do some asteroid-mining. Here's everything we know about the venture so far.
This is big news on several fronts, not the least of which being the fact that this venture stands to reinvigorate the world's passion for space exploration. Money can be a powerful motivating factor, and all indications suggest that there a LOT of it to be made mining resources like water and precious metals from near-Earth asteroids.
Paving the Path to Space
"If you look at space resources, the logical next step is to go to the near-Earth asteroids," Planetary Resources co-founder and co-chairman Eric Anderson told SPACE.com. "They're just so valuable, and so easy to reach energetically. Near-Earth asteroids really are the low-hanging fruit of the solar system."
With enough capital, a venture like Planetary Resources could act as a sort of interplanetary seed crystal, providing the foundation necessary for a bright future of space exploration to emerge.
"A water-rich asteroid would greatly enhance the large-scale exploration of the solar system," explained Anderson in a news release. "Water has many uses in space. For instance, it would not only be used for hydration, but also would be broken down into oxygen and hydrogen, for breathable air and rocket propellant."
Water may be abundant on Earth, but the cost of getting even small amounts of into orbit is — if you'll forgive the expression — astronomical. By making a resource like water available in orbit by mining it there in the first place, Planetary Resources could provide it to future space-exploration projects at a fraction of what it costs today.
Many asteroids are also rich in resources like gold and platinum, which, unlike water, are not abundant here on Earth. According to Peter Diamandis — founder of X Prize and co-chairman of Planetary Resources — one sizable asteroid could contain more platinum-group metals than has ever been mined in the whole of human history.
"When the availability of these materials increases," explains Diamandis, "the cost will reduce on everything, including defibrillators, hand-held devices, TV and computer monitors, catalysts; and with the abundance of these metals we'll be able to use them in mass production, like in automotive fuel cells."
Identifying Mining Prospects
But before the company can dive into the business of mining asteroids, they must first perform some space prospecting. Planetary Resources plans to identify prime mining targets using a number of so-called Arkyd-101 personal space telescopes, pictured here in an artist's conception. The devices (which are, reportedly, already being built) would be used to gather information on the roughly 9,000 near-Earth asteroids thought to be orbiting our planet, and allow the company to home in on the estimated 100—150 rocks that are both water-rich and easily accessible ("easily accessible," in this instance, meaning easier to access than the Moon).
There's also talk of making the data collected from these surveys available to other organiziations, including NASA — but that data would come at a price. Historically speaking, one of the biggest issues with investing in space exploration has been that you're not liable to see a lot of return on your initial contribution for quite some time. Infrastructure has to be established, and industries that can utilize that infrastructure need to emerge and grow; after all, you can sell water in space at a fraction of today's cost, but if there's nobody there to buy it, your business will fail.
That is unless the company can identify points along its development process that allow it to remain profitable. NASA will be planning its own missions to near-Earth asteroids in the coming decade; establishing "data purchase deals" with outside organizations like NASA could be one of the keys to ensuring that Planetary Resources is a profitable enterprise right from the start.
So how long until Planetary Resources strikes it rich in low-Earth orbit? It's tough to say exactly, but the rough timeline looks something like this:
- In the next 18—24 months, the first in a series of Arkyd-class telescopes is launched to begin the search for mining prospects.
- According to Planetary Resources' president and chief engineer, Chris Lewicki: "three, four, five years out, depending on trajectory, is when we envision getting up close and personal with an asteroid."
- SPACE.com is reporting that Anderson declined to estimate when Planetary Resources would actually begin extracting resources from asteroids, but according to the Associated Press, "one of the company founders [unnamed] predicts they could have their version of a space-based gas station up and running by 2020," and a recent study, sponsored by the Keck Institute for Space Studies (and co-authored by two members of Planetary Resources, including Lewicki), estimates that a 500-ton near-Earth asteroid could be coaxed into the Moon's orbit and mined for resources by 2025. [Illustration by Rick Sternback/KISS]
We'll know more in the next few hours, when Planetary Resources officially unveils its plans at Seattle's Museum of Flight. We'll keep you posted.