What’s the best way to become a millionaire mining precious metals from asteroids? The answer may well be to start out as a billionaire.
Yes, a group that can only be described as the super-rich is planning to use remote controlled spacecraft to get gold, platinum, and fuel from rocks as they approach the Earth.
Those involved in the plan include Eric Anderson (the man behind commercial spaceflight company Space Adventures), film director James Cameron, Peter Diamandis (who ran a $10 million contest to create a reusable manned spacecraft), four-times NASA astronaut Tom Jones, Google’s Larry Page, politician Ross Perot, and Google’s Eric Schmidt. They’ve formed a company called Planetary Resources.
According to Anderson, the target will be asteroids that are at least 50 meters wide. He believes one in ten such asteroids will have some form of minerals worth extracting.
The plan is to launch a series of private telescopes within the next two years to begin the hunt for suitable asteroids. In five to 10 years they want to begin space mining, and by 2020 they’d like to have a fuel depot in space that extracts fuel from asteroids and (presumably) offers it to space vehicles. All the work is planned to be unmanned.
Most experts questioned on the proposals believe it is at least technically possible. Asteroids should have precious metals that can be extracted. There’s also some logic to the idea of taking water from asteroids and extracting liquid hydrogen to fuel rockets, which would get round the current expense of taking water into space for such purposes. It does create the odd prospect of space station staff popping over to pick up some fuel and maybe a couple of lottery tickets and a soda while they are there.
The big problem seems to be that what’s technically possible is very different from what’s financially viable. For example, a NASA mission scheduled for 2016 aims to bring back two ounces of an asteroid to Earth. The budget for that mission is a billion dollars, and even if the lump they brought back happened to be solid gold, it would only be worth a little over $3,000.
Planetary Resources expects the telescopes alone will cost $10 million each. Anderson says “We’re in this for decades. But it’s not a charity. And we’ll make money from the beginning” but also admits “We’re not expecting this company to be an overnight financial home run.”