Tech tycoons in asteroid mining venture
Google bosses Larry Page and Eric Schmidt join Avatar director James Cameron in megamillion-dollar plan to make sci-fi reality
A group of hi-tech tycoons including Google's Larry Page and Eric Schmidt have teamed up with explorer and film-maker James Cameron in a venture to mine nearby asteroids, hoping to turn science fiction into real profits.
The megamillion 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 whizz by Earth, with the aim of having a space-based fuel station up and running by 2020.
The inaugural step, to be achieved in the next 18 to 24 months, would be to launch the first of a series of private telescopes that would search for rich asteroid targets.
The entrepreneurs announcing the project in Seattle on Tuesday 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's company offers "weightless" airplane flights. Investors and advisers to the new company, Planetary Resources Inc of Seattle, include Google CEO Page, Google executive chairman Schmidt and Avatar director Cameron, who recently became the first person to make a solo voyage to the Mariana trench, the deepest part of the world's oceans.
"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 mining, fuel processing and later refuelling 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 kilograms and small enough to be held in your hand. They should cost less than $10m (£6.2m), 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.
Asteroids are made mostly of rock and metal, and range from a few metres wide to nearly 10 miles long. The new venture targets the free-flying asteroids, seeking to extract from them the rare earth 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. However, water is very 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 to refuel commercial satellites or spaceships from Nasa and other countries.
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, targeting them takes less fuel and money than going to the moon.
There are probably 1,500 asteroids that pass near Earth that would be good initial targets. They are at least 50 metres wide, and Anderson figures 10% of them have water and other valuable minerals.
"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. "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, but Diamandis said by building and launching quickly, the company expected to operate much more cheaply than Nasa.
"Before we started launching people into space as private citizens, people thought that was a pie-in-the-sky idea," Anderson said. "We're in this for decades. But it's not a charity. And we'll make money from the beginning."