Deep-pocket dreamers aim high with space mining
A group of wealthy entrepreneurs unveiled a new Bellevue-based company Tuesday with the goal of extracting platinum, gold and other valuable resources from asteroids.
Seattle Times science reporter
Space mining has been a longtime staple of science-fiction films — and the companies are almost always the villains.
The transport ship in "Alien" was towing a load of ore when sinister, corporate overlords diverted it into the clutches of the galaxy's baddest monster. "Avatar" was all about saving the inhabitants of Pandora from thugs clawing their home planet to shreds in search of "unobtanium."
Nevertheless, a group of entrepreneurs received a hero's reception Tuesday in Seattle, when they unveiled a new company with the goal of extracting platinum, gold and other valuable resources from asteroids. Director James Cameron, who dreamed up the evil miners of "Avatar," is among the project's supporters.
Called Planetary Resources, the company is based in Bellevue. About two dozen engineers and scientists already are at work on compact space telescopes that would scan for promising targets, co-founder Eric Anderson said.
An audience of business people and space buffs at Seattle's Museum of Flight erupted into applause and hoots when Anderson vowed to launch the first probes within 24 months.
"This company is not about paper studies," he said. "It's about building real hardware, doing real things in space."
If all goes well, Anderson said the company could have its first asteroid target identified and ready for mining within a decade.
But it's a risky enterprise, said Microsoft billionaire Charles Simonyi, one of several tech tycoons bankrolling the work.
He and others at the news conference drew parallels between the birth of space mining and the early days of computing. The first computers were bulky and expensive, Simonyi said, and skeptics doubted individuals would ever want their own.
If space mining gets off the ground, Seattle could be its Silicon Valley, added Chris Lewicki, the former NASA Mars mission manager hired to run the company.
Simonyi said he still wouldn't advise a neighbor to mortgage his house to invest in the project. Those who have put up money so far are all people who can afford to lose it, including Google co-founder and CEO Larry Page, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and Ross Perot Jr., son of the former presidential candidate.
Company officials wouldn't reveal how much money they've raised.
Most people don't give much thought to asteroids, even to worry that one might slam into Earth. But the rocky remnants from the solar system's birth are rich in minerals and water — the latter a precious commodity in space.
Water extracted from an asteroid smaller than the Museum of Flight gallery that will house a space shuttle mock-up could be converted into more hydrogen and oxygen fuel than has been used in the entire history of the shuttle program, said Peter Diamandis, the company's other co-founder.
Platinum, which sells for $1,500 an ounce, is vital for electronics and medical equipment — and abundant in asteroids, he said.
Diamandis is famous for originating the X-prizes, which helped set off a rush of private space entrepreneurs. Now that one group is taking reservations for tourist flights to the edge of space and another has developed a commercial launch vehicle, Diamandis and Anderson were brainstorming their next move a few years ago when they hit on space mining.
Science fiction was an inspiration, Diamandis said. "Since my early teenage years," he said, "I've wanted to be an asteroid miner."
About 500,000 asteroids orbit near Earth, some close enough to reach in a six-month spaceflight.
Building human habitations is far too costly, so all exploration and mining would be done by robots, said science adviser Tom Jones, a former shuttle astronaut.
The most valuable minerals would be shipped to Earth. But much of the material would be processed for use in space, either fueling vessels or building structures.
Not all asteroids are suitable for mining, which is why the company's first focus is on what it calls its Arkyd fleet: mass-produced spacecraft with telescopes and a "Swiss-Army-knife" array of instruments. Not much larger than a microwave, the craft could piggyback on commercial satellites, cutting launch costs.
The first generation simply will orbit Earth, using their optics to scan and analyze asteroids from afar. Later versions will be launched in swarms of five or six, to converge on asteroids, Lewicki said.
The cost per probe will be 10 to 100 times cheaper than a typical NASA mission, and the company is willing to accept that as many as 20 percent of its craft will fail.
Legal questions of who owns resources in space remain to be hashed out. A 1967 treaty declares the moon and other heavenly bodies the common heritage of mankind and prevents any nation from staking claims. But the treaty doesn't mention resource extraction.
"As usual, technology is developing faster than the law," said Adam Bruckner, professor of aeronautics and astronautics at the University of Washington.
Previous space-mining schemes sputtered largely on costs, Bruckner added. With deep-pocket investors, Planetary Resources is better situated.
"It's a confluence of people with great dreams and great technical ability and people with money — and that might make it possible," he said.
But economics will prevail.
The company touted the possibility of a chain of "gas stations" in space, selling fuel made from asteroid water. Without an active space program, which doesn't really exist now, there will be no passing vessels to stop for a fill-up, Bruckner said.
In an unusual admission from a startup, Anderson admitted to a "significant possibility" the company could flop. Even if it does, he said, it will be worth it to "move the needle" for space exploration.
Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491