It sounds like pure science fiction, but a new initiative to mine asteroids for valuable natural resources is getting closer to reality. A startup company called Planetary Resources is working on plans to explore space and gather natural resources, and they say their primary pursuit will be mining asteroids.
The company was founded by space exploration advocate Peter Diamandis and aerospace engineer Eric Anderson, and its list of advisers includes Google CEO Larry Page and director James Cameron. In a statement, Planetary Resources says the goal is to "create a new industry and a new definition of 'natural resources'" and to "add trillions of dollars to the global GDP".
In addition to the profit motive, the new venture is intended to help mitigate some of Earth's environmental and social concerns through off-world resource extraction. In a 2010 talk with Big Think, Diamandis said, "the question is, do you continue to rape and pillage Earth, or if you have the ability to extract that information from outside resources, outside of Earth, then that would be a mechanism to uplift the bottom billion or so of society".
Of course, not everyone believes that asteroid mining would be a good idea for Earth's economy. Vatican astronomer Guy J. Consolmagno spoke about the ethics of the practice in 2010, and posed the question of what this new resource base might do to the economies of resource-exporting nations. He wonders whether it might lead to devastation in many African countries which rely on exports for their GDP, for instance.
So far, Planetary Resources has not announced specific plans or a timeline for actually going into space. A study released this month by the Keck Institute for Space Studies (KISS) at the California Institute of Technology's Jet Propulsion Laboratory states that the technology to bring an asteroid near Earth and mine its resources could be in place by 2025.
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