Firm has its sight set on mining asteroids

A group of 21st-century private space entrepreneurs is expected to unveil an ambitious new venture to mine the surface of near-Earth asteroids in search of precious metals and rare metallic elements.

The plan may seem like it was torn from a science fiction novel, and critics say the idea may be far-fetched and difficult for a small company to accomplish. But the company, Planetary Resources Inc., has already drawn an A-list of investors and advisors.

The backers include Google Inc. Chief Executive Larry Page and Chairman Eric Schmidt, “Avatar” director James Cameron and Microsoft Corp.'s former chief software architect Charles Simonyi.

On Tuesday, executives from Planetary Resources are set to announce that work is underway on constructing small satellites, which will be armed with high-powered cameras and sensors to spot resource-rich asteroids as they whiz past Earth.

Within the next decade, the company hopes to use robots to prospect asteroids and gather rare earth materials, which are vital to medical devices, hand-held electronics and computers.

Separately, Planetary Resources of Seattle wants to help NASA astronauts on deep-space missions to Mars.

“Humanity has been driven for thousands of years to explore the Earth for resources,” said Peter H. Diamandis, the company’s co-founder and co-chairman. “The next step is to expand the economic sphere of humanity beyond Earth’s confines.”

The sale of extracted precious metals and rare metallic elements to mining companies could one day total billions of dollars, he said. Also, as the availability of these metals increase, the cost will drop for products including defibrillators, hand-held devices, televisions and computer monitors.

On Tuesday afternoon at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, Diamandis is expected to reveal what’s ahead for the new company, which now employs some two dozen engineers.

He will make the announcement alongside several of the partners, including commercial space entrepreneur Eric Anderson, former NASA Mars mission manager Chris Lewicki and planetary scientist and veteran NASA astronaut Tom Jones.

“It’s a really ambitious project, and sure, they’ll have their challenges,” said Marco Caceres, senior space analyst for aerospace research firm Teal Group. “But if they are successful and hit a jackpot, it could start a new gold rush.”

Diamandis is no stranger to innovative ideas. As chief executive of the nonprofit X Prize Foundation, he helped kick-start the $10-million competition between private companies to develop a manned rocket.

When a team led by maverick Mojave Desert aerospace engineer Burt Rutan pulled off the feat in 2004, the space race among private companies was officially on.

Diamandis, a physician by training, is like many who have invested in the private space field. He’s a baby boomer with a zeal for science fiction and a lifelong desire to be an astronaut.

The walls of his Playa Vista office are cluttered with sci-fi photos and memorabilia. Star Trek trinkets are stacked high, along with Yoda toys and Buzz Aldrin-inspired G.I. Joe action figures.

The list of Planetary Resources’ business backers is a testament to his ability to tap into well-heeled space enthusiasts who share his love for space travel. However, he won’t say how much money the group has invested.

“There are a lot of billionaires out there who want to see the next step in space,” Diamandis said.

With declining budgets and the space shuttle program retired, NASA has had to cut exploration programs.

Diamandis believes it’s up to private companies to carry the torch in the 21st century.

Within the next two years, the company plans to launch “a swarm” of satellites weighing about 20 pounds and costing as much as $5 million apiece, he said. At distances as high as 500 miles from Earth, the mini-satellites called Arkyd-100s will scour space for potential platinum-rich asteroids.

Data gathered from the satellites will assist in analyzing the composition of an asteroid to determine whether it’s worth mining. When they spot one, Planetary Resources will send in a fleet of higher-powered satellites called Arkyd-200s for a closer look. Once they determine it’s worth mining, the drilling robots will be sent in.

Diamandis concedes actual mining won’t take place for a decade or more. He also said how to retrieve the materials hasn’t been determined.

It is a major challenge and may be tough to accomplish, said Tim Farrar, president of consulting and research firm Telecom, Media & Finance Associates Inc. in Menlo Park, Calif.

Hauling back the precious cargo will be difficult, especially for a small company, Farrar said.

“It’s a very complicated process, but at least it may drum up interest from the public to visit asteroids.”

Just this month, the Keck Institute for Space Studies, a Caltech think tank, released a study that concluded scientists now have the capability to robotically capture an asteroid and haul it back toward Earth — depositing it in orbit above the moon, where it could then be studied, dissected and exploited for its resources. This radical new space mission could renew interest in space travel, the study said.

“Retrieving an asteroid for human exploration and exploitation would provide a new rationale for global achievement and inspiration,” the study concluded. “For the first time, humanity would begin modification of the heavens for its benefit.”

Because asteroids are packed with potentially valuable materials — nickel, cobalt, silicate residue and more — the study recognized the potential commercial applications of the mission, noting that it “could jump start an entire … resource utilization industry.”

But the conventional wisdom about asteroid mining is that it would entail bringing that material back to Earth — “the idea that we’re bringing back gold or something from ‘them thar hills,’” said Louis Friedman, a leader of the Keck report and executive director emeritus of the Planetary Society, the largest space interest group.

“That may be the least likely outcome,” Friedman said, because of the “enormous difficulties of getting it back to Earth.”

A more likely scenario, Friedman said, is that Planetary Resources tries to extract materials in space — then uses the materials to begin manufacturing up there.

“The most valuable thing asteroids contain is basically rock and dirt — material that would serve as the raw feedstock for constructing things in space,” Friedman said.

For instance, Planetary Resources could be setting itself up as a massive space contractor.

President Obama has set a goal of sending astronauts to Mars in the 2030s. That would require a long journey — and shielding astronauts from an unprecedented amount of radiation. Building a radiation shield on Earth and then flying it into space would be enormously expensive.

But the Keck study found that materials in asteroids could be used to construct the radiation shield; theoretically, astronauts could leave Earth, make a pit stop at the asteroid, collect the radiation shield and then fly on toward Mars, at a savings of billions of dollars.

Not only could materials be extracted to build a radiation shield for astronauts en route to Mars or other destinations, but many asteroids contain water, which could be divided on-site into hydrogen and oxygen and used to make rocket fuel, John Brophy, a leader of the study and a principal engineer at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge.

Robotic spacecraft would capture and retrieve asteroids, and then “astronauts would take them apart and process them and turn them into useful material for enabling human exploration further into the solar system,” Brophy said.

“That’s the most likely near-term application for this whole concept of asteroid mining,” he said. Asteroid mining could represent “a new synergy between robotic and human missions.”