Tech Billionaires Unveil Plans to Mine Asteroids

Google bosses and Avatar director James Cameron have teamed up to form a company that will mine natural resources from asteroids.

Peter Diamandis, chairman and CEO of the X Prize foundation. Photo: Hubert Burda Media/Flickr

A group of wealthy, adventurous entrepreneurs will announce on Apr. 24 a new venture called Planetary Resources, Inc.

Planetary Resources, based in Bellevue, Washington, initially will focus on developing and selling extremely low-cost robotic spacecraft for surveying missions, reports Reuters.

The venture, which is being formally unveiled Tuesday at Seattle’s Museum of Flight, is sufficiently down to Earth to attract funding from such A-list investors as Google CEO Larry Page, Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt, Texas billionaire Ross Perot Jr. and spacefaring software executive Charles Simonyi, tells MSNBC. Filmmaker James Cameron has signed on as a senior adviser.

According to the press release, Planetary Resources, will combine the sectors of “space exploration and natural resources” in a venture that could add “trillions of dollars to the global GDP”.

“This innovative start-up will create a new industry and a new definition of ‘natural resources’,” the press release added. Planetary Resources’ first customers are likely to be science agencies, such as NASA, as well as private research institutes.

Planetary Resources’ goal is to set up a commercial infrastructure for fueling trips far beyond Earth orbit, with Planetary Resources controlling the equivalent of oil wells, refineries and filling stations in outer space. That’s the long-term promise of near-Earth asteroids.

“The resources of Earth pale in comparison to the wealth of the solar system,” said Eric Anderson, who founded the commercial space tourism company Space Adventures, and is co-founder of a new company along with Peter Diamandis, who started the X Prize foundation, which offers prize-based incentives for advanced technology development.

“A water-rich asteroid would greatly enhance the large-scale exploration of the solar system,” Anderson said. “Water has many uses in space. For instance, it would not only be used for hydration, but also would be broken down into oxygen and hydrogen, for breathable air and rocket propellant.”

Asteroids also could yield precious metals such as platinum, gold and rare-earth materials. Nearly 9,000 asteroids larger than 150 feet in diameter orbit near the Earth, tells Wired. Some of them could contain as much platinum as is mined in an entire year on Earth, making them potentially worth several billion dollars each.

“When the availability of these materials increases, the cost will reduce on everything, including defibrillators, hand-held devices, TV and computer monitors, catalysts; and with the abundance of these metals we’ll be able to use them in mass production, like in automotive fuel cells,” Diamandis said in the news release.

The real payoff, which is decades away, will come from mining asteroids for platinum group metals and rare minerals.

“If you look back historically at what has caused humanity to make its largest investments in exploration and in transportation, it has been going after resources, whether it’s the Europeans going after the spice routes or the American settlers looking toward the west for gold, oil, timber or land,” Diamandis said.

Diamandis and Anderson declined to specify how much money has been raised for their venture so far. In addition to Google billionaires Page and Schmidt and filmmaker Cameron, Planetary Resources investors include former Microsoft chief software architect Charles Simonyi, a two-time visitor to the International Space Station, Google founding director K. Ram Shriram and Ross Perot Jr.

The venture will be the latest foray into the far-flung for Cameron, who dived last month in a mini-submarine to the deepest spot in the Mariana Trench, according to Yahoo!.

The plot of his 2009 science fiction blockbuster film Avatar concerned resource mining on alien planets.

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