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Planetary Resources: Google Execs And Director James Cameron Back Gold Rush To Mine Asteroids (VIDEO)

Reuters  |  By Posted: 04/24/2012 2:01 am Updated: 04/24/2012 12:25 pm


By Irene Klotz

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - Google Inc executives Larry Page and Eric Schmidt and filmmaker James Cameron are among those bankrolling a venture to survey and eventually extract precious metals and rare minerals from asteroids that orbit near Earth, the company said on Tuesday.

Planetary Resources, based in Bellevue, Washington, initially will focus on developing and selling extremely low-cost robotic spacecraft for surveying missions.

A demonstration mission in orbit around Earth is expected to be launched within two years, said company co-founders Peter Diamandis and Eric Anderson.

Planetary Resources' aim is to open deep-space exploration to private industry, much like the $10 million Ansari X Prize competition, which Diamandis created.

The prize, which galvanized the emerging commercial human spaceflight industry, was awarded in 2004 to Scaled Composites' SpaceShipOne for the first flights beyond Earth's atmosphere by a privately developed, manned spaceship. Commercial suborbital spaceflights are expected to begin next year.

Planetary Resources' first customers are likely to be science agencies, such as NASA, as well as private research institutes.

Within five to 10 years, however, the company expects to progress from selling observation platforms in orbit around Earth to prospecting services. It plans to tap some of the thousands of asteroids that pass relatively close to Earth and extract their raw materials.

Not all missions would return precious metals and minerals to Earth. In addition to mining for platinum and other precious metals, the company plans to tap asteroids' water to supply orbiting fuel depots, which could be used by NASA and others for robotic and human space missions.

"We have a long view. We're not expecting this company to be an overnight financial home run. This is going to take time," Anderson said in an interview with Reuters.

The real payoff, which is decades away, will come from mining asteroids for platinum group metals and rare minerals.

"If you look back historically at what has caused humanity to make its largest investments in exploration and in transportation, it has been going after resources, whether it's the Europeans going after the spice routes or the American settlers looking toward the west for gold, oil, timber or land," Diamandis said.

"Those precious resources caused people to make huge investments in ships and railroads and pipelines. Looking to space, everything we hold of value on Earth - metals, minerals, energy, real estate, water - is in near-infinite quantities in space. The opportunity exists to create a company whose mission is to be able to go and basically identify and access some of those resources and ultimately figure out how to make them available where they are needed," he said.

Diamandis and Anderson declined to discuss how much money has been raised for their venture so far. In addition to Google billionaires Page and Schmidt and filmmaker Cameron, Planetary Resources investors include former Microsoft chief software architect Charles Simonyi, a two-time visitor to the International Space Station, Google founding director K. Ram Shriram and Ross Perot Jr.

Planetary Resources also declined to discuss specifics about how and when asteroid mining would begin. A 30-meter long (98-foot) asteroid can hold as much as $25 billion to $50 billion worth of platinum at today's prices, Diamandis said.

The company's first step is to develop technologies to cut the cost of deep-space robotic probes to one-tenth to one-hundredth the cost of current space missions, which run hundreds of millions of dollars, Diamandis said.

Among the targeted technologies is optical laser communications, which would eliminate the need for large radio antennas aboard spacecraft.

"We're taking new approaches at design," Diamandis said. "Part of the philosophy we're taking is building very low cost, very small spacecraft. You put up six or 10 or dozens and you get reliability."

Planetary Resources, which currently employs about 20 people, is overseen by former NASA Mars mission manager Chris Lewicki. It was founded about three years ago, but has been operating quietly behind the scenes until now.

(Editing by Tom Brown and Lisa Shumaker)

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Check out the slideshow (below) for a look at the companies and organizations with big goals for the next wave in space exploration.
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  • Bloon - Zero2Infinity's Balloon

    The bloon, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/24/bloon-space-balloon-pictures-video_n_935415.html" target="_hplink">a helium-filled balloon</a>, will take a capsule with as many as six people to 118,000 feet -- not quite outer space, but near space. The company expects to make its first commercial flight in 2013. The cost? €110,000, or about $147,000.

  • NASA

    NASA announced in September that <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/14/nasa-space-launch-system-sls_n_962051.html" target="_hplink">it's developing the Space Launch System (SLS)</a>, a heavy-lift rocket that will one day take humans farther than ever before. The 34-story rocket will carry six astronauts aboard the <a href="http://www.nasa.gov/exploration/systems/mpcv/" target="_hplink">Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle</a>. <a href="http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2392960,00.asp" target="_hplink">According to PC Mag</a>, NASA will spend $18 billion over the next five years developing the SLS. With <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/05/14/space-shuttle-program-qa-_n_861994.html" target="_hplink">the retirement of the space shuttle program</a>, NASA currently pays Russia around $60 million per person to get American astronauts into space. Remember, there's still time <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/15/nasa-to-hire-new-astronauts_n_1095686.html" target="_hplink">to apply to be an astronaut</a>.

  • Virgin Galactic

    Over 450 "astronauts" have already booked a $200,000 spot on Sir Richard Branson's SpaceShipTwo, a craft that will take passengers to an altitude of 110 km (68.3 miles). Branson hopes to begin commercial flights in 2013, but that date could get pushed back. "We want to be sure we've really tested the craft through and through before turning it over to the astronauts who bought tickets to go up," he said in October, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/18/richard-branson-dedicates_n_1017226.html" target="_hplink">according to the Associated Press</a>. "If it takes a bit longer, we'll take a little bit longer." Passengers will experience about five minutes of weighlessness during the 2 1/2 hour sub-orbital spaceflight.

  • SpaceX

    In December 2010, SpaceX <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/16/spacex-international-space-station_n_927916.html" target="_hplink">became the first private company</a> to have a spacecraft re-enter orbit, <a href="http://www.spacex.com/press.php?page=20101208" target="_hplink">when its Dragon spacecraft</a> orbited earth twice and then landed in the Pacific Ocean. Next stop? The International Space Station. A representative from SpaceX told HuffPost that a Dragon capsule carrying supplies to the ISS will launch in early 2012. It will be the first commercial company to berth a spacecraft with the space station. But you're going to have to be a NASA astronaut to hitch a ride to space with SpaceX, as the company doesn't have any plans in the near future for space tourism.

  • Blue Origin

    Blue Origin, the notoriously-secretive company underwritten by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, is developing both orbital and sub-orbital launch vehicles to take people into space. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/03/blue-origin-spaceship-fai_n_947731.html" target="_hplink">The company recently released video</a> of a test of its New Shepard rocket, a three-person capsule and launch vehicle that the company is planning to use to take space tourists "to the edge of space." The cost and timeline of the completion of the New Shepard is unclear. <a href="http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/nasa-awards-next-set-of-commercial-crew-development-agreements-120113774.html" target="_hplink">In April, Blue Origin was awarded</a> $22 million from NASA "to advance commercial crew space transportation system concepts and mature the design and development of elements of their systems, such as launch vehicles and spacecraft."

  • Space Adventures/Armadillo Aerospace

    Space Adventures, a company that has sent seven private citizens to the International Space Station, <a href="http://www.spaceadventures.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=news.viewnews&newsid=791" target="_hplink">announced in 2010</a> that it would partner with Armadillo Aerospace to provide suborbital spaceflights. The <a href="http://www.spaceadventures.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=suborbital.Vehicle_Design" target="_hplink">two-passenger rocket</a> will land and take-off vertically and allow for a 360-degree view of the earth below. According to Jaunted, the rocket will travel 62 miles above the earth. <a href="http://www.engadget.com/2010/05/13/space-adventures-undercuts-virgin-galactic-announces-100-000/" target="_hplink">Engadget reports</a> that a flight to space will set you back $102,000.

  • Orbital Technologies' Space Hotel

    Of course, you'll need somewhere to put your bags once you're in space. Orbital Technologies, a Russian company, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/21/space-hotel-pictures-video_n_931951.html" target="_hplink">is building a space hotel</a> where 7 guests will be able to dine on veal cheeks and wild mushrooms at 217 miles above the earth. The company is planning to open the hotel in 2016. <a href="http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/08/19/russia-space-tourism-idUSLDE77F0PF20110819" target="_hplink">According to Reuters</a>, a five-day stay will set you back a cool $1 million.

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