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Wednesday, April 25, 2012 - Page updated at 06:00 a.m.

Billionaires bankroll new space company for asteroid mining

By Sandi Doughton
Seattle Times science reporter

Space exploration needs a kick in the pants, and it will get one Tuesday when a group of high-tech billionaires announces plans to mine asteroids, says a scientific adviser to the enterprise.

And there's money to be made, too, adds John S. Lewis, a retired University of Arizona professor of space science who now lives in Anacortes.

"We're talking resources with market values in the trillions," said Lewis, author of "Mining the Sky." "It's not at all surprising that it's billionaires who are stepping up to the plate. They think big and they know a big investment is required to make money."

Two of Lewis' former students are among the driving forces behind the project, and he will join them at Seattle's Museum of Flight on Tuesday for the unveiling of a new company called Planetary Resources.

Former Microsoft executive Charles Simonyi, one of several investors, will also be there.

Money men who won't make an appearance include "Titanic" and "Avatar" filmmaker James Cameron, Google CEO Larry Page and Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, and Ross Perot Jr., son of the former presidential candidate.

For decades, Lewis has been a self-described "voice in the wilderness," calling for a new industry to mine the abundant resources of space.

"There's a lot of work that has to be done before we start cutting metal," he said. "But these are things that we've been thinking about for a long time."

Books running to a thousand pages or more have been written on processing minerals in space, he said.

Many space veterans are skeptical, and even Lewis admits to significant hurdles, such as finding customers for materials mined in space.

Asteroids are rich in nickel, platinum and other valuable minerals, but because it is so expensive to shuttle things down to the Earth's surface, it will only make economic sense if the resources can be used in space.

One possibility would be to mine materials and use them in space to build solar arrays, which could beam electricity to Earth via a microwave relay.

Asteroids are also rich in water, which can be broken down into hydrogen and oxygen for rocket fuel. That opens the possibility of shipping the water from the asteroid to a space station orbiting the Earth — a "downhill" trip that requires much less energy than penetrating the planet's atmosphere — where it could be processed into fuel for satellites and other space vehicles.

All of the mining would be done robotically, Lewis said.

"It's the stuff of science fiction," former astronaut Thomas Jones told The Associated Press. "But like in so many other areas of science fiction, it's possible to begin the process of making them reality." An adviser to the project, Jones worked with Lewis as a graduate student.

Lewis' other former student is Chris Lewicki, who managed Mars missions for NASA and is president and chief engineer for Planetary Resources.

Lewis said the company's first steps will probably be to send inexpensive probes to examine nearby asteroids, and to identify the best candidates for mining. Another early mission will test mining and processing methods in zero-gravity.

Unlike NASA, which makes enormously expensive, one-of-a-kind space vessels, space mining will require mass-produced technology, like probes, and cheaper launch services, Lewis said.

Launch costs are already being driven down as private entrepreneurs, like PayPal founder Elon Musk and his rocket company SpaceX, enter the market. Blue Origins, founded by Amazon's Jeff Bezos, designs and builds rockets in a factory in Kent.

Planetary Resources' co-founders both have experience making money in space. Though Peter Diamandis started by giving away cash — through X-Prizes for milestones in spaceflight — he now owns a company that offers zero-gravity experiences for paying customers.

Eric Anderson pioneered space tourism, brokering trips to the international space station for wealthy clients like Simonyi, who made the trip twice.

One downside to mining asteroids is their low gravity, said University of Washington aeronautics professor Adam Bruckner. The rocky bodies are abundant in the solar system and many pass conveniently close to the Earth — but everything would have to be strapped down, he noted.

UW astronomer Don Brownlee, a veteran of NASA's Stardust mission to sample comet dust, said he doesn't see space mining penciling out anytime soon.

"Are these guys willing to spend trillions?" he asked. "Space is really expensive."

Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or sdoughton@seattletimes.com

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