Washington. A group of high-tech tycoons wants to mine nearby asteroids, hoping to turn science fiction into real profits.
The mega-million dollar plan is to use commercially built robotic ships to squeeze rocket fuel and valuable minerals such as platinum and gold out of the rocks that routinely whiz by Earth. One of the company founders predicts they could have their version of a space-based gas station up and running by 2020.
The first step, to be achieved in the next 18 to 24 months, would be launching the first in a series of private telescopes that would search for rich asteroid targets.
Several scientists not involved in the project said they were at once thrilled and skeptical, calling the plan daring, difficult and highly expensive. They struggle to see how it could be cost-effective, even with platinum and gold worth nearly $1,600 an ounce. An upcoming NASA mission to return just 60 grams of an asteroid to Earth will cost about $1 billion.
But the entrepreneurs announcing the project on Tuesday in Seattle have a track record of making big money off ventures into space. Company founders Eric Anderson and Peter Diamandis pioneered the idea of selling rides into space to tourists, and Diamandis’ company offers “weightless” airplane flights.
Investors and advisers to the new company, Planetary Resources, include Google chief executive Larry Page and executive chairman Eric Schmidt and explorer and filmmaker James Cameron.
The mining, fuel processing and refueling would all be done without humans, Anderson said.
“It is the stuff of science fiction, but like in so many other areas of science fiction, it’s possible to begin the process of making them reality,” said former astronaut Thomas Jones, an adviser to the company.
The target-hunting telescopes would be tubes less than a meter long. They should cost less than $10 million, officials said.
Asteroids are made mostly of rock and metal and range from a few dozen meters wide to nearly 15 kilometers long. The new venture targets the free-flying asteroids, seeking to extract from them the rare Earth platinum metals that are used in batteries, electronics and medical devices, Diamandis said.
Water can be broken down in space to liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen for rocket fuel. Water is expensive to get off the ground, so the plan is to take it from an asteroid to a spot in space where it can be converted into fuel. From there, it can easily and cheaply be shipped to Earth orbit for refueling satellites or spaceships.
There are probably 1,500 asteroids that would be good initial targets, Anderson said.
“A depot within a decade seems incredible. I hope there will be someone to use it,” said Andrew Cheng at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Lab, who was the chief scientist for a NASA mission to an asteroid a decade ago. “I have high hopes that commercial uses of space will become profitable beyond Earth orbit. Maybe the time has come.”
Space experts said such a bold project had huge startup costs. Diamandis and Anderson would not disclose how much the project will cost overall.
Anderson, who co-founded the space tourism business, said he was used to skeptics.
“Before we started launching people into space as private citizens, people thought that was a pie-in-the-sky idea,” he said. “We’re in this for decades. But it’s not a charity, and we’ll make money from the beginning.”