Startup Plans to Mine Asteroids for Precious Minerals

April 24, 2012
Planetary Resources will aim for outer space to alleviate the scarcity of raw materials.

As raw materials get scarcer and ever more expensive to acquire, one entrepreneur-led effort is attempting to do something about it. Rather than seeking out heretofore untapped sources of precious minerals, this new company will be looking in a whole different direction entirely. This is no rare earths initiative; if anything, it could be dubbed an off-earth initiative.

If it sounds a little bit like science fiction, it certainly has the pedigree. Film director James Cameron, who knows a little bit about otherworldly adventures thanks to his development of Avatar, the biggest moneymaking film of all time, is teaming up with Google co-founders Larry Page and Eric Schmidt to invest in Planetary Resources, a company that hopes to mine asteroids for various minerals and water.

The promise of Planetary Resources is to apply commercial innovation to space exploration, says former NASA astronaut Tom Jones, an advisor to the new company. They are developing cost-effective, production-line spacecraft that will visit near-Earth asteroids in rapid succession, increasing our scientific knowledge of these bodies and enabling the economic development of the resources they contain.

The company believes that space mining could someday develop into a multi-billion dollar industry. Just a single 500-meter platinum-rich asteroid, they say, could contain the equivalent of all the platinum group metals mined to date.

Many of the scarce metals and minerals on Earth are in near-infinite quantities in space, points out Peter Diamandis, co-founder and co-chairman (with Eric Anderson) of Planetary Resources. As access to these materials increases, not only will the cost of everything from microelectronics to energy storage be reduced, but new applications for these abundant elements will result in important and novel applications.

Although the company states that these prospecting missions will target asteroids that are easily accessible, there is the not-insignificant issue of actually getting to the asteroids in the first place. The company, however, says that it has already figured that part out by designing the Arkyd-100 Series of deep-space prospecting spacecraft, the predecessor of the Arkyd-300 Series that purportedly will retrieve the minerals and return them to Mother Earth.

Our mission is not only to expand the worlds resource base, but we want to increase peoples access to, and understanding of, our planet and solar system by developing capable and cost-efficient systems, says Chris Lewicki, the companys president and chief engineer.

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