Off-world, commercial mining has long been the stuff of science fiction, but that could change in the not-to-distant future according to plans announced yesterday by Seattle-based startup, Planetary Resources, Inc.
Within the next two years, the company hopes to begin identifying mineral-rich, near-Earth asteroids as potential sources of rare elements, precious metals and water. Processing, extraction and transport of the mined materials to Earth would be handled entirely by robots, eliminating the complex and costly systems needed to support humans in space.
Targeting near-Earth asteroids (NEAs) has a number of logistical and cost advantages that are key to the commercial viability of the venture. Of 9,000 known NEAs, roughly 1,500 pass close enough to Earth that they would be easier to reach than Earth’s moon. Their microgravity and solid, rocky surfaces also make them relatively easy to land on and take off from.
Moreover, because of their relatively small mass, asteroids have not been subject to geological processes that affect larger bodies such as planets. Thus, minerals tend to be more evenly distributed and easier to mine robotically.
The company acknowledges that actual mining and processing in microgravity presents challenges that have not yet been addressed. Nevertheless, it feels that enough is known about working in low-gravity situations that those problems can be solved.
The first phase of the project would involve launching a series of small, telescopes into low-Earth orbit in order to begin identifying asteroids with minerals worth extracting. According to Planetary Resources, these instruments — each measuring only a few feet in length and weighing a few dozen pounds — have already been developed and could be operational within 2 years.
Known as LEO, the telescopes could also be fitted with propulsion units to enable fly-by exploration of more distant asteroids.
Planetary Resources was co-founded by high-tech entrepreneurs, Eric Anderson and Peter Diamandis, and the project has already drawn the attention of such high-profile investors such as Larry Page, CEO of Google and Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt. Advisors include filmmaker/explorer James Cameron, Ross Perot, Jr., Chairman of Hillwood and The Perot Group, former NASA engineers, an astronaut, and members of academia and business.
Anderson and Diamandis are best known for commercializing space tourism as a co-founders of Space Adventures. Diamandis is also founder and Chairman of the X Prize Foundation, intended to promote “radical breakthroughs” that inspire new markets.