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Tech mogul-backed startup Planetary Resources today announced plans to mine near-earth asteroids for everything from water to precious minerals and metals. The company plans to launch its first spacecraft within two years.
"The vision of Planetary Resource is to make the resources of space available to humanity both in space and here on Earth, whether it is propellant in water in asteroids or precious metals and minerals for use on Earth," Planetary Resources co-founder Peter Diamandis said in a press conference to unveil the company.
Diamandis, who is better known as the progenitor of the X-Prize to award the first privately developed vehicle to make it into space twice within two weeks, started Planetary Resources in 2010 with commercial spaceflight entrepreneur Eric Anderson. Diamandis has been thinking about asteroid mining for years, even making a speech on the topic at the 2005 TEDGlobal conference.
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The company is backed by a number of wealthy information technology industry vets, including Google co-founder Larry Page and chairman Eric Schmidt, and former Microsoft chief architect and space tourist Charles Simonyi. Among Planetary Resources' advisors is former Microsoft CTO David Vaskevitch.
Simonyi, speaking at the press conference, likened the launch of Planetary Resources to the early days of the personal computer, where the private sector was working to make computing more ubiquitous and drive prices down.
Anderson said in the press conference that he sees the key resources available in asteroids to be water and precious metals such as platinum. Water is widely used as a rocket propellant, and Anderson said that he foresees the water found in asteroids as a means to create "gas stations on the way to Mars or to the moon." He also said that it could be used to produce breathable air and to support life as drinking water.
Precious metals like platinum, meanwhile, don't occur naturally in the Earth's crust, but are found in abundance in asteroids--a single asteroid could hold the equivalent of all the platinum ever mined on Earth. Other minerals found in asteroids include nickel and iron.
Planetary Resources' plan for mining asteroids comes in three steps. First, the company plans to identify all near-earth asteroids, what they are made of, and how to reach them. Then the company will build the spacecraft and other capabilities necessary to reach and mine those resources. Finally, the company will begin mining and delivering those resources.
"This company is not about paper studies, about thinking and dreaming about exploring space," Anderson said in the press conference. "There's been plenty of talking. We're about doing."
It's unclear exactly when the actual mining of these asteroids will begin, but within 24 months Planetary Resources plans to release the first of its spacecraft, the Arkyd 101, which will operate in low-earth orbit as a space telescope. "We will use this capability to look out to the asteroids," Planetary Resources president Chris Lewicki said at the press conference.
After the Arkyd 100-series, the company will launch the Arkyd series, which will go beyond the low orbit of the Arkyd 200. Next, the Arkyd 300 series will directly explore asteroids with swarms of a half dozen spacecraft that will collaborate to learn more about the asteroids. Subsequent series of spacecraft will actually do the mining. According to Anderson, the spacecraft will take advantage of the latest in information technology, including cloud computing.
Planetary Resources is no doubt a risky venture. Anderson said that even the company's investors acknowledged that failure was a real possibility, but they believe that attempting to mine asteroids is worth the risk. "It can be done, and we are talking about something that's very difficult. But the returns are extraordinary," Anderson said.
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