Planetary Resources seeks to mine asteroids' riches

A space startup says nearby asteroids can be mined for water, platinum, and other natural resources to enable space exploration and bring those valuable materials to Earth.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
4 min read
The first step in Planetary Resources space missions: prospecting by telescope to determine resources available on near-Earth asteroids. Planetary Resources

Space startup Planetary Resources today launched an ambitious plan to capture water and precious metals from near-Earth asteroids, a feat founders say would enrich earthbound society and enable further space exploration

The two-year-old company announced its plans at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, where its founders said that technology has advanced to the point that space-mining valuable natural resources is now economically feasible.

Some asteroids that pass near the Earth may hold water -- a vital commodity for making spacecraft fuel and supporting the lives of astronauts. And that's just the beginning. A single 500-meter-wide asteroid could contain more platinum than has ever been mined on Earth, the company claims.

Watch this: Planetary Resources' plan to mine asteroids

"Everything we hold of value on Earth -- energy, minerals, metals, real estate, water -- is literally available in near infinite quantities in space," said co-founder Peter Diamandis, a futurist and CEO of the X Prize Foundation. "We're going to change the way the world thinks about natural resources."

Technology and business changes give Planetary Resources a better chance at succeeding on its asteroid mining vision than the people who have failed over the past decades, Diamandis said.

Cheaper electronics, robotics, and artificial intelligence allow for machines that can operate autonomous mining missions in space. Also, commercial space travel from companies such as Space X gives Planetary Resources a route to reach space.

Finally, there are many well-heeled investors willing to invest in a small group of people who have access to these powerful technologies, he said. The company's advisers and investors include Google CEO Larry Page, former CEO Eric Schmidt, and former Microsoft chief software architect and space tourist Charles Simonyi.

Broadly speaking, the company's plan is to identify the most valuable near-Earth asteroids, extract valuable materials, and then deliver them to a specific location. That material could be brought back to Earth or delivered to an orbiting fuel depot in space, said co-founder and space engineer Eric Anderson.

"This will be a seminal event in entrepreneurial space and moving off the planet," he said.

Swarms of robots to mine space (photos)

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Lower-cost designs
The company's intention is to send its first telescope, the Arkyd 100 series, into low-Earth orbit by the end of next year. Using optical spectroscopy, it will seek to determine the chemical makeup of asteroids approaching the Earth. Its second telescope will gain the ability to propel itself using solar panels to get closer to its targets.

Its third-generation robotic spacecraft will be deployed in "swarms" of half a dozen to approach an asteroid and land on it for mining, explained company president and chief engineer Peter Lewicki, who is a veteran of NASA's Mars programs. By deploying multiple spacecraft, the company hopes to improve the redundancy of the system and improve the chances of success.

The third-generation spacecraft design would launch a "swarm" of about five or ten craft to actually extract resources. This would happen next decade at the earliest.
The third-generation spacecraft design would launch a "swarm" of about five or ten craft to actually extract resources. This would happen next decade at the earliest. Planetary Resources

The company's goal is to identify those asteroids suitable for mining by the end of the decade, executives said. There are millions of asteroids of different sizes which come close to Earth, but their chemical makeup can be very different.

The most valuable ones appear to be the carbonaceous condrite asteroids which have water and loose rock which would not be difficult to collect. Water would be extracted by heating up mud and separating the water, said Thomas Jones, a NASA veteran and one of the company's advisers, which also includes film director James Cameron, the former chief technology officer of Microsoft David Vaskevitch, and the CEO of the Planetary Science Institute.

The value of natural resources in a single asteroid can be hundreds of millions of dollars, executives said. The company estimates that extracting 20 percent of the hydrogen and oxygen from a single carbonaceous chondrite asteroid about 50 meters across is enough propellant for all of the Space Shuttle flights.

"You don't have to run through detailed calculations to realize that a smallish asteroid has extraordinary value if you find the right kind," said Anderson.

The core challenge for the audacious venture, which is taking on a number of risky tasks, is to keep its costs low. Lewicki said the spacecraft designs will be an order of magnitude cheaper than existing spacecraft. It intends to launch its spacecraft into space by attaching itself on existing missions, a "ride share" approach to keep its costs under control.

"There's a rising tide going on in commercial space exploration. There are extraordinary investors willing to invest in launch technologies, lunar missions, asteroid missions," said Diamandis. "Capital has always been the scarcest part of space exploration and this changes the equation and allows us to go much faster and much farther than before."

Updated at 12:55 p.m. PT with additional details.

Manned space travel past, present, and future (images)

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