Tycoons’ mission to plunder asteroids

Science websites are awash with what must be some of the most anticipated space news ever. Since the formation of new company Planetary Resources by a line-up of billionaire entrepreneurs was announced last week, the smart money has been on asteroid mining as their business model.

Early Interceptor probes study a passing asteroid. Credit: Planetary Resources

Today the news was confirmed. The planet’s most ambitious start-up wants to develop low-cost robotic spacecraft to explore the thousands of asteroids that come close to Earth and plunder their resources. Tycoons including Google executives Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, Space Adventures’ Eric Anderson, movie director James Cameron and the X Prize foundation’s Peter Diamandis are spearheading a long-term project to mine asteroids as a commercial venture.

Their mission statement describes asteroids as “the best real estate in the Solar System” and says that nearly 9,000 have already been found that pass near Earth’s orbit, with almost a thousand more discovered every year.

Planetary Resources’ new website says: “Many of these near-Earth asteroids are easily accessible from Earth. And many contain enormous quantities of accessible resources.”

It adds: “There are over 1,500 asteroids that are as easy to get to as the surface of the Moon. They are also in Earth-like orbits with small gravity fields, making them easier to approach and depart.

“Asteroids contain valuable and useful materials like iron, nickel, water, and rare platinum group metals, often in significantly higher concentration than found in mines on Earth.

“We are only just beginning to realize the incredible potential of asteroids.”

The company wants first to focus on asteroids containing reserves of water as this is not only essential for future astronauts but can provide hydrogen and oxygen to make rocket fuel, helping enable large-scale exploration of the Solar System. But later they hope to extract valuable minerals including gold and platinum.

Such a daring achievement might be decades away. And apart from the practical challenges, one can’t help but wonder about the ramifications for life back home, where personal investments as well as national financial security often depends on gold reserves, if a glut of gold suddenly arrives on the market from an asteroid like Apophis.

There is probably a James Bond movie in there somewhere!

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