Asteroid mining eyed by California start-up
A California company backed by high-profile investors including Hollywood director James Cameron and Google founder Larry Page will unveil a tantalizing business model Tuesday — mining asteroids in outer space and bringing the valuable resources back to Earth.
"The company will overlay two critical sectors — space exploration and natural resources — to add trillions of dollars to the global GDP," Planetary Resources Inc. said in a short press release last week.
The release provided few additional details, but promised all would be revealed at a sold-out press conference at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, Wash. on Tuesday.
The company will "create a new industry and new definition of 'natural resources,'" the release said.
In addition to Page and Cameron — the adventurous Hollywood director who recently plunged to the lowest point on Earth, the bottom of the Mariana Trench to collect samples and footage for a forthcoming movie project he's working on — the venture seems to be backed by some heavy hitters of the technology world.
The company is the brainchild of Eric Anderson, a former manager of a NASA mission to Mars, and Peter Diamandis, the entrepreneur and financier behind the X-Prize, which offers $10 million to any group that can create a reusable and efficient manned spacecraft.
Other notable investors include former Microsoft executive Charles Simonyi, K. Ram Shriram, a director at Google, and Eric Schmidt, Google's chair.
It's believed the company's business model will be based on capturing asteroids that travel near Earth and extracting useful minerals out of them.
It's a concept that has been around for decades — Cameron's 2009 blockbuster Avatar centred on humanity mining for precious metals in the far off fictional land of Pandora — but financial and logistical hurdles have so far made space mining more a dream than a reality.
With their cryptic launch plans in the works, Planetary Resources may think they now have unlocked the secret. And indeed, experts who have nothing to do with the company say the notion of human mining colonies in outer space is not as ridiculous as it may at first sound.
"People tend to think of mining the moon, but in fact we're probably more likely to mine asteroids," said Chuck Edwards, director of metallurgy at AMEC Americas Ltd.
"Some of those asteroids are essentially pure iron and nickel, so it's got a lot of potential," Edwards said.
Others agree. "It sounds a little bit wild-eyed, but it's not actually too far beyond what we've already done," says Iain Christie, the CEO of Canadian company Neptec Design. "I don't think it's crazy."
Neptec has a long track record in space, having helped build sensors for the shuttle program, and now for one of the companies vying to resupply the International Space Station. Neptec has also worked closely with Sudbury, Ont.-based NORCAT to build rover vehicles for a drill aimed at collecting samples on the moon and elsewhere in space.
"There's been talk about this since we went to the moon the first time," Christie says. "A lot of asteroids are literally big hunks of metal so you can see why that would be fairly attractive."
"It's the expense of finding the ore on Earth versus getting it from space that's the question from an investment standpoint."
Indeed, the main hurdle has long been the prohibitive cost of moving matter through the Earth's gravitational pull and into space. The rule of thumb in the space community is that it costs roughly $10,000 US to move a single pound of matter into space. With economics like that, it's hard to see the business case for transporting mundane earthly minerals to and from Earth.
Other minerals such as platinum — currently trading at around $1,500 an ounce and often found in asteroids — make the economics seem a little more plausible.
Water has been found on several asteroids, and securing a source of water is seen as the No. 1 requirement of any permanent human colonies outside of earth.
That means ferrying mined materials back to earth might not be the only option. A dependable source of water and construction metals could make an asteroid, held in orbit, a sort of intergalatic pitstop for longer-range human space travel.
"The idea is to move a near-Earth asteroid toward the sun, park it in orbit and then carve chunks of it off," Edwards said. "It's mostly downhill," he jokes.
John Chapman is a mining executive who now takes a keen interest in space exploration. "Wherever humans go, the most important requirements are oxygen and water," he says. "Any time you design a space mission, that's pretty much all that matters."
"Moving asteroids around, it's very possible," he says. "It can be done." But he expresses doubt that deep-space mined resources could be ferried in any realistic way between Earth and space any time soon.
"You might be able to move a near-Earth asteroid into orbit, but in our lifetime, it's probably pretty unlikely that we'll be bringing resources in from outer space," he says.
Cost barriers remain
Still, as Christie notes, the idea is the sort of long-term thinking that space exploration calls for. "If we're going to be in space long-term, this is something we need to start thinking about," he says.
The cost barriers remain high. A NASA-sponsored study published by the Keck Institute for Space Studies earlier this month found that the cost of theoretically capturing a 500-ton asteroid and bringing it into orbit around the moon where mankind could mine it for resources over time would cost about $2.6 billion.
That theoretical journey could take up to a decade to complete from start to finish, but humanity could perhaps accomplish the feat by 2025, the NASA report estimated.
Chapman may be skeptical that asteroid mining has a realistic chance of success, but is a firm advocate of mankind renewing its interest in space exploration in general.
"The dinosaurs never had a space program so they didn't survive," he said. "We have one, so we have a chance."