Company unveils plan to mine asteroids for riches (Update)

Apr 24, 2012 By SETH BORENSTEIN , AP Science Writer
This computer-generated image provided by Planetary Resources, a group of high-tech tycoons that wants to mine nearby asteroids, shows a conceptual rendering of a spacecraft preparing to capture a water-rich, near-Earth asteroid. The group's mega-million dollar plan is to use commercially built robotic ships to squeeze rocket fuel and valuable minerals like platinum and gold out of the lifeless 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. (AP Photo/Planetary Resources)

Using space-faring robots to mine precious metals from asteroids almost sounds easy when former astronaut Tom Jones describes it - practically like clearing a snow-covered driveway.

Jones, an adviser to a bold venture that aims to extract gold, platinum and rocket fuel from the barren space rocks, said many near-Earth asteroids have a loose rocky surface held together only weakly by gravity.

"It shouldn't be too hard to invent a machine like a snow blower to pick up material off these asteroids," explained Jones, a veteran of four space shuttle missions.

But it will be risky and monstrously expensive, which is why some of the biggest and richest names in high-technology - including the barons of Google and filmmaker James Cameron - are behind the project.

If the plan gets off the ground as planned, robots could be extracting cosmic riches within 10 years.

Outside experts are skeptical because the program would probably require untold millions or perhaps billions of dollars, plus huge advances in technology. Yet the same entrepreneurs behind this idea also pioneered the selling of space rides to tourists - a notion that seemed fanciful not long ago.

"Since my early teenage years, I've wanted to be an asteroid miner. I always viewed it as a glamorous vision of where we could go," Peter Diamandis, one of the founders of Planetary Resources Inc., told a news conference Tuesday at the Museum of Flight in Seattle. The company's vision "is to make the resources of space available to humanity."

The inaugural 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 the right type of asteroids.

The proposal is to use commercially built robotic ships to squeeze rocket fuel and valuable minerals out of the rocks that routinely whiz by Earth.

Several scientists not involved in the project said they were simultaneously thrilled and wary, calling the plan daring, difficult - and pricey. They don't 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 2 ounces (60 grams) of an asteroid to Earth will cost about $1 billion.

The entrepreneurs of Planetary Resources have a track record of profiting from space ventures. Diamandis and co-founder Eric Anderson led the way in selling space rides to tourists, and Diamandis has a separate company that offers "weightless" airplane flights.

Investors and advisers to the new company include Google CEO Larry Page, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and Cameron, the man behind the Hollywood blockbusters "Titanic" and "Avatar."

Extracting water is key to deep space exploration, as well as for driving costs down, Anderson said. The water can be converted into fuel by separating the hydrogen and oxygen. On a manned flight, it could also be used for drinking and growing food.

The plan is to take water from an asteroid to a spot in space where it can be broken down into fuel. From there, it can easily and cheaply be shipped to Earth orbit for refueling commercial satellites or spaceships from NASA and other countries.

Anderson acknowledged the many potential pitfalls.

"There will be times when we fail," he said. "There will be times when we have to pick up the pieces and try again."

The mining, fuel processing and later refueling would all be done without humans, Anderson said.

The target-hunting telescopes would be tubes only a couple of feet long, weighing only a few dozen pounds and small enough to be held in your hand. They should cost less than $10 million, company officials said.

The idea that asteroids could be mined for resources has been around for years. Asteroids are the leftovers of a failed attempt to form a planet billions of years ago. Most of the remnants became the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, but some pieces were pushed out to roam the solar system.

Those free-flying asteroids - ranging from a couple of dozen feet wide to nearly 10 miles long - are the ones being targeted for rare Earth platinum metals that are used in batteries, electronics and medical devices, Diamandis said.

In the past couple of years, NASA and other space agencies have shifted their attention from the moon and other planets toward asteroids. Because asteroids don't have any substantial gravity, going after them costs less fuel and money than going to the moon, Anderson said.

There are probably 1,500 asteroids that pass near Earth that would be good initial targets. They are at least 160 feet (50 meters) wide, and Anderson figures 10 percent have water and valuable minerals.

"A depot within a decade seems incredible. I hope there will be someone to use it," said Andrew Cheng at John Hopkins University's Applied Physics Lab, who was the chief scientist for a NASA mission to an asteroid a decade ago. "And I have high hopes that commercial uses of space will become profitable beyond Earth orbit. Maybe the time has come."

Diamandis and Anderson would not disclose how much the project will cost overall. By building and launching quickly, their company hopes to operate much more cheaply than NASA.

Harvard's Tim Spahr, director of the Minor Planet Center, said getting drilling equipment into space and operating safely sounds "expensive and difficult."

"It would be awfully hard to make money on it," Spahr said.

Richard Binzel, professor of planetary science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said the effort "may be many decades ahead of its time. But you have to start somewhere."

Anderson said the benefit to humanity - and investors - is worth it.

"We do understand that the pot of gold at the end of this rainbow, if it's successful, will be big."

Explore further: NASA launches new citizen science website; opens challenge to participate in future Mars missions

More information: Planetary Resources Inc.: http://www.planetaryresources.com/

NASA's 2016 asteroid sampling mission: http://osiris-rex.lpl.arizona.edu/

4.4 /5 (8 votes)
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User comments : 23

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Picard
5 / 5 (6) Apr 24, 2012
At first I thought that they are insane, that they will never be profitable. But then ... we have to start somewhere for it to be profitable oneday. And the sooner we start learning and experiencing, the better.
Sinister1811
1 / 5 (4) Apr 24, 2012
Wouldn't there be a potential high cost of mining asteroids? I can't imagine it would be cheap, that's all I'm saying.
MrVibrating
1.1 / 5 (7) Apr 24, 2012
If it really took off as an industry the redistribution of mass could become an environmental concern...
Sigh
5 / 5 (3) Apr 24, 2012
Spider Robinson persuaded me that this sort of thing could be quite important. You can hear his argument at http://www.spider...st.html. Scroll all the way down to the third podcast: Thrillin at the MacMillan #2: SUSTAINING THE PLANET

I have no idea how it can be made profitable, though, unless either launch costs come down drastically or someone develops the technology to build the mining robots from raw materials in space.
ShotmanMaslo
2.2 / 5 (6) Apr 24, 2012
SpaceX Falcon rockets are anticipated to offer a big reduction in cost per Kg to space, not even talking about reusable Grasshopper if they pull it off. Still, I dont know if it would be enough to make asteroid minning profitable, but I guess they would not jointly announce such a bold thing before first doing the economic calculations, so I remain optimistic.
Vendicar_Decarian
0.4 / 5 (40) Apr 24, 2012
These fools and their money will soon be parted if they actually go ahead with this venture.

Other than laughter, nothing will ever come of this of course. It is dumber than dumb in so many ways.
Husky
not rated yet Apr 24, 2012
its precisely high launch costs that * could * make this profitable , if they can have a fueldepot in orbit filled with asteroid water, than they can sell this for a decent price * if * launchcosts remain high and if sufficient customers for their service...

But for many its seems as bold as putting all your money on a single number at the roulette table.
GSwift7
1.6 / 5 (5) Apr 24, 2012
In regard to profitability and the cost of getting started:

An upcoming NASA mission to return just 2 ounces (60 grams) of an asteroid to Earth will cost about $1 billion.


If these guys can actually get asteroid samples back to Earth, they can sell samples of plain rock to the highest bidder. Looks like 1/2 billion an ounce is reasonable. 16 ounces in a pound, bring back a 200 lb rock... hmmmm. Starts to look profitable to me.

Mining usable resources could be farther down the road, but for now, I think you could make money selling samples to the highest bidders. Also, if they can get to an asteroid, then they should be able to get to other interesting objects, such as the moons of mars or the rings of saturn. Imagine what a sample of the rings of saturn would be worth? $$$$$
GSwift7
1.8 / 5 (4) Apr 24, 2012
I also wouldn't be surprised if you could make some money from advertising/promotions and with Cameron involved, there's a serious possibility of some kind of television or cinema production. Government space agencies have always wasted opportunities to get high quality films of their missions.

If the marketing is done well, you could spawn a whole range of merchandise, like clothing, games and toys.

Of course, those licenses would be of minor value compared to the samples. Despite the 1/5 I got for my previous comment, I still say that an ounce of gold from an asteroid would be worth way more than the value of the gold itself. Universities, museums, and government labs would be climbing over eachother to get samples.
antialias_physorg
2.7 / 5 (3) Apr 24, 2012
Let's get this straight: They are NOT aiming to mine asteroids. They are setting up a company that will put telescopes into space which can hunt for potential mining targets. They will then hire those telescopes out to companies who want to attempt mining. That's all.

But for many its seems as bold as putting all your money on a single number
They are not. 1 billion dollars mean very little to the founders of Google (Page is valued at 18.7 billion, Schmidt has a net worth of 6.9 billion. Cameron has 700 million and will likely be only in it at the PR end of things.)

In effect it will be a 'Google asteroids' search engine. Nothing more (and nothing less).

rubberman
1 / 5 (2) Apr 24, 2012
I can think of 20 issues with mining an asteroid that will each cost millions, if not billions of dollars to solve...no way this happens within 50 years.
DaFranker
4 / 5 (4) Apr 24, 2012
Whoa, so many idiotic close-minded "skeptics" who go "Nonono, this is IMPOSSIBLE IN ANY WAY / they cannot possibly make money" and "it will never happen within at least 30 years!"

I'm guessing you're also the same people that said ten years ago that it would take at least until 2050 to make quantum computer prototypes and even longer to create mind-directed machines? (http://phys.org/n...ot.html)
rubberman
1 / 5 (2) Apr 24, 2012
Whoa, so many idiotic close-minded "skeptics" who go "Nonono, this is IMPOSSIBLE IN ANY WAY / they cannot possibly make money" and "it will never happen within at least 30 years!"

I'm guessing you're also the same people that said ten years ago that it would take at least until 2050 to make quantum computer prototypes and even longer to create mind-directed machines? (http://phys.org/n...ot.html)


Artificial telekenesis between humans will be easier and cheaper than profitable mining of an asteroid. I'm not saying it isn't do-able, hell we could be vacationing on mars right now if profit wasn't required to make this stuff worth while. If 2 ounces of plain asteroid are costing NASA 1 billion, how many tonnes of gold are needed for a profit?
DaFranker
3.3 / 5 (6) Apr 24, 2012
As has been specified before, "money" is a complete non-issue for the people involved in this project. You talk of feasibility and time-scale, but depend on "money" as the key "resource" for it.

Here's an epiphany for you: "Money" doesn't actually represent squat. If these people set up automated production lines and resource procurement pipelines, and keep it all "in-house", then there is no "money" involved, only time, resources and ability. We have the technical ability to do what is exposed, they have more than enough resources (as in, they can buy enough land and equipment to get the resources themselves), and their time-scale is realistic.

As for the profit argument, they've obviously never thought of that. Just like you can think of tons of "issues" that would "cost a lot to solve", I can think of tons of "ideas" that would "reduce costs a lot" or "improve profits significantly". It's all a question of reality. In nature, money does not exist.
antialias_physorg
3 / 5 (1) Apr 24, 2012
If 2 ounces of plain asteroid are costing NASA 1 billion, how many tonnes of gold are needed for a profit?

A lot. Because the stuff that is being mined will not be sold as 'asteroid gold' (except to rich idiots) but simply as gold - because there is no real difference to earth-mined gold...other than that asteroid mined stuff will be more radioactive on average.
ShotmanMaslo
3 / 5 (4) Apr 24, 2012
" If 2 ounces of plain asteroid are costing NASA 1 billion, how many tonnes of gold are needed for a profit?"

But their method may be far more economical than the NASA mission, especially if you consider economies of scale, since they not going to make this a one time endeavour. NASA was not aiming for economic efficiency.
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Apr 24, 2012
especially if you consider economies of scale

Lets get one mining operation up and running before we talk about 'economics of scale'. It isn't like if you build 100 mining camps only the first one costs a hundred billion and the other 99 are for free.
GSwift7
1.8 / 5 (4) Apr 24, 2012
If 2 ounces of plain asteroid are costing NASA 1 billion, how many tonnes of gold are needed for a profit?

A lot. Because the stuff that is being mined will not be sold as 'asteroid gold' (except to rich idiots) but simply as gold


That isn't true. Meteors generate large values when they go up for auction, and it's not just rich idiots who buy them, though there are plenty of those. Universities and museums also compete to own them. Pristine samples that did not burn through our atmosphere and then get exposed to air, water, etc. would be worth more than gold. It really wouldn't matter if the asteroid contains gold or not. Not at first anyway.

because there is no real difference to earth-mined gold...other than that asteroid mined stuff will be more radioactive on average


We won't know that until someone actually gets a sample, really. We really have no clue at this point.
GSwift7
1 / 5 (3) Apr 24, 2012
Lets get one mining operation up and running before we talk about 'economics of scale'.


100% correct. It's not even possible to guess about it at this point.

Here's a relevant question though: Did Orville and Wilbur make a profit?
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (1) Apr 24, 2012
Meteors generate large values when they go up for auction

How long will that last when you can bring them back by the tonfull?
Long enough to make 10 billion dollars? I doubt it.

But hey, let them try. There's really nothing wrong with that. They could spend their money in much worse ways. If it does lead to easier access top space then there's really no downside to this. I'm not really knocking the idea THAT they are doing this - just the idea that they will make a profit off of it - even long term.
BSmith
not rated yet Apr 24, 2012
For those sceptics...Try reading "The Third Industrial Revolution." I think it was written in 1975 or 78. It describes how we could mine the asteroid belt using '70s off-the-shelf technology. It would open your minds to the possibilities of industrialization of space.
MrVibrating, were you serious? I hope that your sense of irony simply didn't come through.
Shabs42
not rated yet Apr 24, 2012
They won't be recouping costs even by "just selling asteroids" (simple, right?) for many years. If you read all the details, they have no plans of even possibly touching an asteroid for at least ten years. The first generation of rockets launch in two years as a proof of concept, then a second and third generation of telescopes before mining is even approached.

I don't believe these guys are motivated by the money anyways. As has been pointed out, they are billionaires several times over. They either want their names in the history books or are truly in it for the good of humanity; either motive works for me as long as they are eventually successful. If they are in it for the money, they can certainly afford to wait and play the long game though.
rubberman
1 / 5 (2) Apr 25, 2012
Meteors generate large values when they go up for auction

How long will that last when you can bring them back by the tonfull?
Long enough to make 10 billion dollars? I doubt it.

But hey, let them try. There's really nothing wrong with that. They could spend their money in much worse ways. If it does lead to easier access top space then there's really no downside to this. I'm not really knocking the idea THAT they are doing this - just the idea that they will make a profit off of it - even long term.


This is also how I view the endeavor. IF they aren't in it for profit then hell, I hope they decide to go to mars with a manned craft too, they could probably get there faster than any government funded mission will....