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Originally published April 24, 2012 at 8:20 PM | Page modified April 25, 2012 at 2:28 PM

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Rush is on to mine precious material in space

Brier Dudley: This time around, the prospectors in dungarees arrived in jets, instead of a steamship. But they brought the same message: There's a ton of gold to be had in the new frontier. And once again Seattle just happens to be the gateway to the gold fields.

Seattle Times technology columnist

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This time around, the prospectors in dungarees arrived in jets, instead of a steamship. But they brought Seattle the same message: There's a ton of gold to be had in the new frontier, and the rush is on.

Instead of the Klondike, the big money now is in asteroids floating nearby, just waiting for adventurous miners who can get their hands on the right tools and transportation.

Planetary Resources — the space-mining venture that surfaced Tuesday — claims there are tens of billions of dollars' worth of precious material just waiting to be scooped up by swarms of robotic mining satellites it will assemble in Bellevue.

It's a fantastic and thrilling story, as inspiring today as the gold rush was in late 1890s, after a dreary recession and series of bank failures. And once again Seattle just happens to be the gateway to the gold fields.

That means that even if the prospectors return empty-handed — which they admit is a real possibility — this region still would be their outfitter and home port. It also builds on the cluster of bleeding-edge space ventures in Boeing's shadow funded by local tech billionaires.

Planetary Resources' president, former NASA Mars mission leader Chris Lewicki, said Seattle is turning into the "Silicon Valley of space."

Who knows where this will lead?

Charles Simonyi, the Medina software pioneer and two-time space traveler backing the company, said space-resource extraction is "an enabling technology" similar to the personal computer.

"Nobody could predict what it would be used for — from entertainment to business, to science, to learning ... everything is transformed," he said.

So will Planetary Resources be the next IBM?

"This will be IBM 100 years from now, but the sizes we are talking about at that time will be truly astronomical," Simonyi said.

There may be opportunity for the commoners to join the handful of billionaire investors disclosed Tuesday. Co-founder Peter Diamandis told me that Planetary Resources may have a public offering of its shares eventually.

"Maybe, maybe," he said. "We're still early on — we were not planning to announce the company in the first place but we decided we would ... to make it easier to find the best engineers in the world."

Word was also leaking out, and it's easier to line up partnerships "when you're out in the open," he said.

That helps explain the promotional air of Tuesday's news conference.

Whether or not the company offers stock, it will need broad public support.

Before it begins working on asteroids later in the decade — scooping up platinum and extracting water with solar panels and perhaps nuclear reactors — the company needs the United States to back its plan and policies supporting its business.

Diamandis said he went through the same thing in 1996, when he announced the Ansari X Prize to spur private spaceflight.

There were no guidelines for such things "so we had to work with the FAA and the White House to create the rule and regulations to offer private spaceflight," he said, adding that Planetary Resources will do the same thing.

"I think ultimately the rules will be very similar. If you start to perfect the resources, you'll be able to own them," he said.

"Does someone own a planet? No. Does someone own a rock they might take off a planet? Sure. Where's the in-between? We'll find out."

This is another similarity with the personal-computer industry.

The biggest winner in that gold rush was Microsoft because it did more than see the future and invest early in the technology.

It also shaped licensing rules and intellectual-property protections for software.

Perhaps these new prospectors came to Seattle to equip themselves with more than aerospace and engineering talent — they need lawyers, as well.

Brier Dudley: 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com.

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