Peter H. Diamandis, co-founder and co-chairman of a Bellevue, Washington-based start-up called "Planetary Resources," had always dreamt of being an asteroid miner and he is well on his way to turning his long-cherished dream into reality.
Planetary Resources, an asteroid mining company backed by filmmaker James Cameron and other well-known investors, was officially announced on Tuesday with plans to launch exploratory spacecraft over the next two years to hunt for raw materials, ranging from water to precious metals from Near-Earth Asteroids (NEAs) a few years after that.
Asteroid mining will launch a trillion-dollar industry. Photo: Planetary Resources
The company believes resource extraction from asteroids will deliver multiple benefits to humanity and its growth, which is to be valued at tens of billions of dollars annually. "The effort will tap into the high concentration of precious metals found on asteroids and provide a sustainable supply to the ever-growing population on Earth," read a company statement.
"This company is not about paper studies," Eric Anderson, who co-founded Planetary Resources with Diamandis, was quoted as saying by PC Mag. "It's not about thinking and dreaming about asteroid mining. There's plenty of talking. This is about doing. We'll create robots that go into deep space and mine asteroids. We're not going to talk about it, we're just going to do it."
Planetary Resources has developed the Arkyd-101 space telescope with remote sensing capability. Data gathered from Near-Earth Asteroids will assist in analyzing the composition of the body to determine a commercial value. Photo: Planetary Resources
As USA Today pointed out, the aim of this ambitious project is to land robotic ships on "selected asteroids in orbit between Mars and Jupiter; figure out how to tap water and minerals as fuel for long-distance spacecraft; and bring home platinum and other precious materials to make it all a profitable venture."
The company believes that water-rich NEAs will serve as "stepping stones" for deep space exploration, providing space-sourced fuel and water to orbiting depots. Accessing water resources in space will revolutionize exploration and make space travel dramatically more economical.
Swarms of low-cost robotic spacecraft will enable extraction of resources from Near-Earth Asteroids. Photo: Planetary Resources
"A depot within a decade seems incredible," Andrew Cheng at John Hopkins University's Applied Physics Lab told USA Today. Cheng served as the chief scientist for a NASA mission to an asteroid a decade ago.
"I have high hopes that commercial uses of space will become profitable beyond Earth orbit. Maybe the time has come," he added.
"Water is perhaps the most valuable resource in space. Accessing a water-rich asteroid will greatly enable the large-scale exploration of the solar system. In addition to supporting life, water will also be separated into oxygen and hydrogen for breathable air and rocket propellant," said Anderson.
Small, water-rich, Near-Earth Asteroids can be captured by spacecraft, allowing their resources to be extracted. Photo: Planetary Resources
A single 500-meter platinum-rich asteroid contains the equivalent of all the Platinum Group Metals mined in history. "Many of the scarce metals and minerals on Earth are in near-infinite quantities in space. As access to these materials increases, not only will the cost of everything from microelectronics to energy storage be reduced, but new applications for these abundant elements will result in important and novel applications," said Diamandis.
The company said that the project is on a fast track, and in 2014, it will start the first phase by launching a series of Earth-orbiting space telescopes. The space telescopes, dubbed Arkyd Series 100 spacecrafts, have already been developed and will be used in low-Earth orbit and ultimately help prioritize the first several NEA targets for the company's follow-on Arkyd-300 Series NEA swarm expeditions.
Planetary Resources is developing the technologies to enable low-cost prospecting of asteroids. Photo: Planetary Resources
Of the approximately 9,000 known NEAs, there are more than 1,500 that are energetically as easy to reach as the Moon, but to characterize NEAs is something Planetary Resources is more concerned about. However, the company hopes that Arkyd Series 100 spacecrafts will be helpful in that matter.
Although Diamandis and Anderson declined to comment on how much getting the first pieces of equipment into space would cost, they expected the project to operate more quickly and economically than NASA.
Ars Technica reported that the Obama Administration has set 2025 as the year NASA would be set to attempt a human-asteroid rendezvous, coinciding with the Planetary Resources schedule.
The space agency also unveiled plans last year to deploy an unmanned spacecraft, the OSIRIS-Rex, which is expected to arrive at a near-Earth asteroid designated 1999 RQ36 in 2020. The spacecraft will be equipped with a robotic arm, built to collect samples from the asteroid, PC Mag reported.
If Planetary Resources indeed delivers on its claims, it would be the first to land a spacecraft on a planetary body as small as an asteroid, collect materials from the surface and return to Earth. Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's (JAXA) Hayabusa mission landed a probe on the 25143 Itokawa asteroid in 2005 and returned to Earth in 2010. However, it failed to deploy and the probe's sample collection machinery also failed during the mission, the report added.
Planetary Resources is the second billionaire-backed private space company to be announced within the last six months. In December, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen launched his new company "Stratolaunch Systems" that plans to build the world's largest airplane and use it as an air-based launch pad to send people into orbit.
Planetary Resources is financed by industry-launching visionaries, including Google executives Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, and Ross Perot, Jr., Chairman of Hillwood and The Perot Group.
The company's high-profile support group also includes chairman of Intentional Software Corporation, Microsoft's former chief software architect Charles Simonyi and founder of Sherpalo and Google Board of Directors founding member K. Ram Shriram.
The list of big-league backers also includes former NASA astronaut and planetary scientist Tom Jones as advisor for the company, former NASA Mars mission manager Chris Lewicki as the company's president and chief engineer.
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