In a plot seemingly out of a James Bond movie, a startup that is backed by Google folks Larry Page and Eric Schmidt and X-Price creator Peter Diamandis plan to mine asteroids for valuable materials. But one of the really surprising things about that wild idea is that it could actually lead to valuable energy resources for the future of batteries, fuel cells and other electronic devices.
Named Planetary Resources, the startup is embarking on a bold (some would say crazy) venture to explore and extract materials such as water and platinum, nickel, iron and other metals in asteroids that fly near Earth. The company’s emergence marks a moment in history when there is a serious attempt to find resources in space because the resources on Earth are depleting.
“It can be done and yes it’s difficult. No question,” said Diamandis, co-founder of Planetary Resources during a press conference, adding “the economic returns and benefits to humanity are extraordinary.”
The startup, founded in 2009 and based in Bellevue, Wash., recently raised a round of funding and the infusion of money prompted the company to hold a big press event to outline key aspects of its plan. The company plans to launch a spacecraft called Arkyd-100 Series within two years that will be able to fly in the Earth’s low orbit and look for asteroids of a certain size.
The spacecraft will be able to take images of the asteroids to figure out their mining potentials. The company plans to develop two subsequent series of spacecrafts.
Water is a particularly valuable commodity because it’s got hydrogen and oxygen, two important sources of fuel for powering rockets and supporting life in space, said Chris Anderson, another co-founder of Planetary Resources, during the press event. Thomas Jones, a former NASA astronaut and an advisor to Planetary Resources, said the cost of bringing water to the International Space Station when he was there was $20,000 per liter.
“We will create a network of gas stations that opens the roadway to the solar system. It will dramatically decrease the cost of deep space exploration,” he said.
Platinum and related materials also are valuable and used widely in catalytic converters, fuel cells, batteries, medical devices and various other electronic devices. Platinum in batteries and fuel cells costs around $1,500 per ounce. The plan is to ship these precious metals back to Earth.
To illustrate the huge mining potential of asteroids, Diamandis said an asteroid that is 50 meters in diameter and made of carbonaceous chondrite could provide enough hydrogen and oxygen to power every space flight that has existed in the history of the space shuttle program. The Earth is surrounded by nearly 9,000 asteroids.
The day-to-day operation of the startup will be led by Chris Lewicki, its president and chief engineer who was the flight director for NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity rovers. He also has an asteroid named in his honor, according to his biography.
Planetary Resources also has filmmaker James Cameron and former Microsoft chieftechnology officer David Vaskevitch as advisors.
Asked whether science fiction has played a big part in inspiring the company’s mission, Anderson said, “Science fiction is fiction right up to the point that is fact, and that’s what we are here to make it happen.”