Mining Asteroids: Planetary Resources Inc.'s Fantastic Voyage
April 22nd, 2012
The Wall Street Journal / By AMIR EFRATI
A new company backed by two Google Inc. GOOG -0.54%billionaires, film director James Cameron and other space exploration proponents is aiming high in the hunt for natural resources—with mining asteroids the possible target.
The venture, called Planetary Resources Inc., revealed little in a press release this week except to say that it would "overlay two critical sectors—space exploration and natural resources—to add trillions of dollars to the global GDP" and "help ensure humanity's prosperity." The company is formally unveiling its plans at an event Tuesday in Seattle.
While the announcement may cause some people to snicker at what could be a page out of a sci-fi novel or a Hollywood movie scene, Planetary Resources is making its debut just as scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and other groups are embracing the notion of mining "near-Earth asteroids" and providing blueprints for how such a feat would be accomplished.
The possibility of extracting raw materials such as iron and nickel from asteroids has been discussed for decades, but the cost, scientific expertise and technical prowess of fulfilling such as feat have remained an obstacle. NASA experts have projected it could cost tens of billions of dollars and take well over a decade to land astronauts on an asteroid.
Tuesday's event is being hosted by Peter H. Diamandis and Eric Anderson, known for their efforts to develop commercial space exploration, and two former NASA officials.
Mr. Diamandis, a driving force behind the Ansari X-Prize competition to spur non-governmental space flight, has long discussed his goal to become an asteroid miner. He contends that such work by space pioneers would lead to a "land rush" by companies to develop lower-cost technology to travel to and extract resources from asteroids.
"I believe that opening up the resources of space for the benefit of humanity is critical," Mr. Diamandis said in an interview with Forbes magazine earlier this year about plans to launch an asteroid mining company.
People listed by Planetary Resources as members of its "investor and advisor group" include Larry Page, Google's chief executive, and Eric Schmidt, the company's executive chairman; Mr. Cameron, whose film "Avatar" depicted a corporate venture to extract natural resources from another planet; former Microsoft Corp. MSFT +4.55%executive Charles Simonyi, who has made two trips to space and funded other related activity; Ram Shriram, a Google director and venture capitalist; and Ross Perot Jr., son of the Texas technology entrepreneur and former presidential candidate Ross Perot.
Former NASA Mars mission manager Chris Lewicki is listed in the press release as president and chief engineer of Planetary Resources, with Messrs. Diamandis and Anderson as co-chairmen.
None of the men could be reached for comment. A spokeswoman for Planetary Resources, which discloses few details on its website, declined to comment.
The news conference announcing the launch of the company is scheduled to be held at the Charles Simonyi Space Gallery at the Museum of Flight in Seattle on Tuesday.
Asteroid mining could take several forms, including sending humans in a spacecraft to an asteroid so they could explore and mine it. In another scenario, robotic spacecraft could be launched either to mine an asteroid directly or transport it closer to Earth so that humans could more easily reach it.
Such mining could yield a large amount of water, oxygen and metals to help further space exploration by allowing humans to fuel spacecraft, build space stations and other constructs. The resources could potentially be brought back to Earth as well.
Earlier this month, a study by NASA scientists concluded that, for a cost of $2.6 billion, humans could use robotic spacecraft to capture a 500-ton asteroid seven meters in diameter and bring it into orbit around the moon so that it could be explored and mined. The spacecraft, using a 40-kilowatt solar-electric propulsion system, would have a flight time of between six and 10 years, and humans could accomplish this task by around 2025.
The estimated cost doesn't include the billions of dollars that it might take to extract minerals.
"[W]ith the right ground-based observation campaign approximately five attractive [asteroids] per year could be discovered," said the NASA study, published by the Keck Institute for Space Studies. It also said that by exploring asteroids people may be able to gain information or find raw materials that would allow humans to travel far beyond the moon.
Mr. Lewicki and Tom Jones, a former NASA astronaut who is an advisor to Planetary Resources, were involved in the study, though it's unclear if that means the company will adopt the same strategy for extracting material from asteroids.
Louis Friedman, a former NASA aerospace engineer who also was involved in the study, said he supports this strategy but noted that it would take "hundreds of millions of dollars" to get started and that Planetary Resources would "need to find a lower-cost way to access space" in order to succeed.
He is also skeptical the company could find ways to transfer raw materials extracted from asteroids back to Earth, given the cost of going in and out of earth's gravity well. Thus, he said, the materials could only be useful in space.
President Obama in 2010 set a goal to send a manned mission to an asteroid by 2025, but the details remain fuzzy and the effort hasn't generated much public excitement or political traction. However, NASA is working on an unmanned mission called OSIRIS-Rex that would launch in 2016 and land on an asteroid, study it, and bring a tiny amount of it back to earth by 2023. NASA also is calling on amateur astronomers to help the agency find "near-earth" asteroids that could be explored in the future.
In recent years, as NASA has pulled back on space exploration, wealthy entrepreneurs such as Amazon.com Inc. AMZN -0.59%founder Jeff Bezos, Tesla Motors Inc. TSLA 0.00%creator Elon Musk and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen have tried to fill the void with their personal money. Mr. Musk has pursued commercial rockets and spacecraft to transport cargo and astronauts into orbit, while Messrs. Allen and Bezos have looked to launch tourists to the edge of space and possibly beyond.