Planetary Resources Group Wants to Mine Asteroids

by Nancy Atkinson on April 24, 2012

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Asteroid mining concept. Credit: NASA/Denise Watt

Last week a new company backed by a number of high-tech billionaires said they would be announcing a new space venture, and there was plenty of speculation of what the company –– called Planetary Resources — would be doing. Many ventured the company would be an asteroid mining outfit, and now, the company has revealed its purpose really is to focus on extracting precious resources such as metals and rare minerals from asteroids. “This innovative start-up will create a new industry and a new definition of ‘natural resources,’” the group said.

Is this pie in the sky or a solid investment plan?

It turns out this company has been in existence for about three years, working quietly in the background, assembling their plan.

The group includes X PRIZE CEO Peter Diamandis, Space Adventures founder Eric Anderson, Google executives K. Ram Shriram, Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, filmmaker James Cameron, former Microsoft chief software architect Charles Simonyi — a two-time visitor to the International Space Station — and Ross Perot Jr.
Even though their official press conference isn’t until later today, many of the founders started talking late yesterday. The group will initially focus on developing Earth orbiting telescopes to scan for the best asteroids, and later, create extremely low-cost robotic spacecraft for surveying missions.

A demonstration mission in orbit around Earth is expected to be launched within two years, according to the said company co-founders, and within five to 10 years, they hope to go from selling observation platforms in orbit to prospecting services, then travel to some of the thousands of asteroids that pass relatively close to Earth and extract their raw materials and bring them back to Earth.

But this company also plans to use the water found in asteroids to create orbiting fuel depots, which could be used by NASA and others for robotic and human space missions.

“We have a long view. We’re not expecting this company to be an overnight financial home run. This is going to take time,” Anderson said in an interview with Reuters.

President and Chief Engineer Chris Lewicki talked with Phil Plait yesterday and said “This is an attempt to make a permanent foothold in space. We’re going to enable this piece of human exploration and the settlement of space, and develop the resources that are out there.”

Lewicki was Flight Director for the NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity Mars rover missions, and also Mission Manager for the Mars Phoenix lander surface operations. He added that the plan structure is reminiscent of that of Apollo: have a big goal in mind, but make sure the steps along the way are practical.

Another of the aims of Planetary Resources is to open deep-space exploration to private industry, much like the $10 million Ansari X Prize competition, which Diamandis created. In previous talks, Diamandis has estimated that a small asteroid is worth about “20 trillion dollars in the platinum group metal marketplace.”

“The resources of Earth pale in comparison to the wealth of the solar system,” Eric Anderson told Wired.

The company will reveal more details in their press conference today (April 24) at 10:30 AM PDT | 12:30 PM CDT | 1:30 PM EDT | 5:30 UTC. You can watch at this link.

Planetary Resources website

Sources: Bad Astronomy, Wired, Reuters

About 

Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also works with Astronomy Cast, and is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

KeiZka April 24, 2012 at 2:44 PM

Corporations. Hate’em but at the same time love’em too.

Dampe April 24, 2012 at 3:08 PM

I hate to be negative but… I honestly couldn’t EVER see this happening. Would the materials outweigh the costs of actually doing it? Besides it being too expensive and having too many risks, the concept is just too inconvenient.

M Peter Selman April 25, 2012 at 12:26 AM

People are taking this seriously now because 1) launch costs are very low with new providers, 2) miniaturization of spacecraft components and sensors, ect, and 3) solar-electric propulsion. This would allow for big operations on relatively affordable craft. Things are opening up.

Torbjörn Larsson April 25, 2012 at 7:45 PM

He – that made me read “affordable crap” into it. Yes, I am thinking of a new car again.

krenshala April 25, 2012 at 3:57 PM

While they can return material/resources to earth (once they get that far in their plan), it sounds to me like their primary purpose is to acquire/make-available resources on-orbit. The cost of that, once they have the capability, is much lower than shipping those same resources up from a planet. Lower prices to orbit (al a SpaceX and their competitors) just make getting the equipment necessary into orbit easier and the time frame for profitability shorter.

It definitely isn’t a sure bet, but it is by no means a sure failure, either.

krenshala April 25, 2012 at 3:57 PM

While they can return material/resources to earth (once they get that far in their plan), it sounds to me like their primary purpose is to acquire/make-available resources on-orbit. The cost of that, once they have the capability, is much lower than shipping those same resources up from a planet. Lower prices to orbit (al a SpaceX and their competitors) just make getting the equipment necessary into orbit easier and the time frame for profitability shorter.

It definitely isn’t a sure bet, but it is by no means a sure failure, either.

masteroftheuniverse April 24, 2012 at 3:15 PM

When/Where can I buy shares?

Torbjörn Larsson April 24, 2012 at 6:05 PM

On Eternia?

Torbjörn Larsson April 24, 2012 at 6:05 PM

On Eternia?

Wezley Jackson April 25, 2012 at 11:47 AM

Heyaa Torbjorn, whats going on?

Torbjörn Larsson April 25, 2012 at 7:49 PM

Good movie – bad moves. LOL

bookmanjohn April 24, 2012 at 3:52 PM

Practical Problem #1: Getting payloads off the Earth at a reasonable cost.

Solve that, and the rest will follow,

lcrowell April 24, 2012 at 4:14 PM

This illustrates a big problem with these schemes. The amount of energy required to make the orbital delta-vee changes is likely to always be larger than the energy you get out of process. This of course includes energy for launching from the Earth’s surface as well as energy required to make the orbital changes necessary to deliver the mined materials. The grand example of course is with the Apollo lunar missions, where 3000 ton rockets were used to return a few hundred pounds of lunar rocks that have little more resource value than basalt.

LC

Aqua4U April 24, 2012 at 6:51 PM

Am still liking laser ablation techniques for changing asteroid orbitals… Solar powered maser/laser station at L3 do the trick?

Aqua4U April 24, 2012 at 6:55 PM

-OR- LASER powered space cargo tugs?

M Peter Selman April 25, 2012 at 1:17 AM

More likely, solar-electric ion-propulsion used by the Dawn Spacecraft, now orbiting Vesta. 3100 s ISP at a thrust of 90mN. Higher thrust and ISP will be achievable in the future. Miniaturization and high ISP propulsion, is a great enabler.

lcrowell April 25, 2012 at 12:57 PM

My idea with that was to place spacecraft bearing mirrors ( thin foil material etc) near an asteroid. These craft do a sort of screen play a point guard might do and keeps solar radiation directed on the asteroid. The UV ionizes the dust and by electrostatic repulsion ablates off the asteroid. Newton’s 3rd law then means the asteroid gets a small increment in momentum change per unit time.

This would be used to deflect a troublesome asteroid that might impact the Earth. I am not sure if this is particularly practical for harvesting asteroids for their resources.

LC

krenshala April 25, 2012 at 3:50 PM

It would be equally practical for both purposes. It is by no means a fast change in orbit, but its not like a mining resource needs to have its position/orbit adjusted rapidly anyway. Not to mention the fact that small, slow changes in the wrong direction are much easier to correct that large, fast ones.

newSteveZodiac April 24, 2012 at 4:42 PM

This is IT, this is what will open the solar system up 300 times faster than NASA, ESA JAX etc. The prospect of getting C4H9SH stinky rich will spur developments of the technologies needed, the VASIMR drives, the self assembling machinery, the nano-extraction techniques, the comms and transport infrastructure and the life support systems for the necessary human presence (always cheaper and more expendable than machines). As soon as others realise they are missing out they will be there, competing to do it faster, better and cheaper and the real space race will begin.

Of course there are monumental obstacles to overcome just as there were when they built railways across the USA and the capital investment needed will make an airline CEO wince but the rewards will be, literally, astronomical.

SJStar April 24, 2012 at 5:14 PM

Been watch Alien movies too much, aka the Nostromo refinery and seeing spaceships travelling across the universe. I.e. It mission was to bring 20 million tons of ore to Earth for the ‘Company’, fictionally named ‘Weylan-Yutani’. Sound familiar?? How about the movie Avatar, and the upcoming Avatar II, which was also a mining company, named RDA, on Pandora extracting unobtanium? Sound familiar? (The connection is the fellow named Michael Biehn, who worked on both films and is a great mate of Mr. Cameron!)

[Next Cameron will be announcing Sigourney Weaver has been bought-off and will be going along too! Again, the James Cameron trying to circumvent the rival movie director Ridley Scott - especially with his Blade Runner II movie, and off course the recent Prometheus movie (and its sequel - where mining too is important to the story!)]

We, my friends, are being conned by the movie franchises, in a veiled attempt to sell movies.

These guys have more likelihood as Buzz Adrian has of returning to the Moon or being the first American on Mars! Suckers are born many times per minute, I’d think!

Quite frankly, the Chinese will beat everyone to the punch. They’re so desperate for resources and have the desire to exploit the Moon too.

squidgeny April 25, 2012 at 12:05 PM

Just to check: you think this entire thing is a carefully crafted ploy to sell movies?

SJStar April 25, 2012 at 6:08 PM

Yes… Else it is the biggest coincidence I’ve ever seen.

Producing a mining movie in space. Plan a upcoming movie on a similar subject. Announce a plan to mine asteroids in space. Umm…

If it quacks like a duck, and walks like a duck, then it must be a goldfish!

(You’d make a great Vulcan, with that kind of twisted logic!)

squidgeny April 25, 2012 at 6:33 PM

But the company’s founders have nothing to do with the film industry, and have invested pretty much all of their lives in space flight. And they’re pretty wealthy – they’re hardly going to look to the movie industry for income ideas.

Your theory seems a bit of a stretch?

SJStar April 25, 2012 at 8:42 PM

Perhaps they made a deal with Cameron to sell their idea to the wider public in exchange for propping up the themes of his own movies. There is almost certainly a connection which has not been disclosed here for public consumption.

Wild publicity stunts for movies has been going on since Hollywood (Hollywoodland) started!

Either way, it does seem awfully suspicious!

Torbjörn Larsson April 24, 2012 at 6:04 PM

I’m ripping of Musk here, when I note that the local materials will always be cheaper. If they can be substitutable, which tree/coal/oil/gas/frakking et cetera energy industry shows is in principle doable, there will be no comparable ROI.

So all of this, except maybe Diamandis catalyst material, would be used in space. ISS/its replacement will both be a base of operations and a customer. So this is an industry relying mostly on tourism and colonization, and their taxation.

Platinum trades for ~ 2 kUSD/oz or ~ 100 USD/g. Diamandis is therefore targeting a platinum mass of ~ 20*10^12/10^5 kg ~ 2*10^8 kg. (Assuming a US press conference, i.e. a short scale reference.) Assuming he uses a resusable Dragon at a downmass of 6 tonnes, he will need ~ 2*10^5/6 or ~ 33 000 missions @ ~ 60 MUSD, or ~ pay ~ 2*10^12 USD. The theoretical max ROI is ~ 10. With to-LEO transport and processing, it may be negative.

As a reference, the world production of platinum 2007 was ~ 6 million oz or ~ 6*10^6*20/10^3 ~ 10^5 kg. It will take Diamandis ~ 2000 years to get rid of his platinum at the current consumption rate.

If he isn’t flooding the market and lower his ROI, he and his children will then earn ~ 33*60*10*20 MUSD ~ 0.4 trillion USD on a generation basis.

But that is _only_ if no one starts to substitute platinum for other catalysts, or he get other competition like direct ones. The former process has already started.

Hematite April 24, 2012 at 6:13 PM

Well of course the CHEEP way to harvest these rocks is to send them to earth directly, which could happen inadvertently if someone goofs while moving one around…

Hematite April 24, 2012 at 6:20 PM

Although, I wonder what the result would be if an ~100m asteroid hit the Antarctic ice sheet at say a 10 degree angle?

Aqua4U April 24, 2012 at 6:48 PM

I yam SO hoping they score a major financial ‘home run’! Are they hiring?

Abraham Samma April 24, 2012 at 6:55 PM

Their first phase of action consists of telescopes in earth orbit. I wonder if they plan to make use of the invaluable WISE mission data set.

M Peter Selman April 25, 2012 at 12:57 AM

I was thinking about that. Why not use already existing observation data? Perhaps WISE does not provide the spectral data they want? Having your own telescope means you can sell other services like earth observation and other astronomy experiments, which could finance the mission, or even future ones.

krenshala April 25, 2012 at 4:02 PM

I’m sure they are taking advantage of any current data that is available (to the public, or for sale at what they consider reasonable prices). However, by using their own in-space sensor platforms (IR/visible/UV telescopes, radar, etc) they can be sure to get the information they want on the specific NEAs they want. And they don’t have to share their data if competitors arrive in the market.

krenshala April 25, 2012 at 4:02 PM

I’m sure they are taking advantage of any current data that is available (to the public, or for sale at what they consider reasonable prices). However, by using their own in-space sensor platforms (IR/visible/UV telescopes, radar, etc) they can be sure to get the information they want on the specific NEAs they want. And they don’t have to share their data if competitors arrive in the market.

danangel April 24, 2012 at 8:44 PM

The rich have always led the way in exploration and innovation and the US is very fortunate to still have billionaires who will invest in the future of humankind. The government could tax them into paupers and give every dime taken to NASA, but we would end up with nothing in return. Private enterprise will once again lead the way to prosperity.

squidgeny April 24, 2012 at 9:55 PM

Top marginal tax rates were 80% in 1969.

TheDirtBoy April 25, 2012 at 2:59 AM

“The government could tax them into paupers and give every dime taken to NASA, but we would end up with nothing in return.” Exremely untrue. FACT: Every dollar ever spent by NASA has been paid back to the american public TEN TIMES OVER in the form of spin-off techonlogies and high-tech jobs.

“Private enterprise will once again lead the way to prosperity.” Can’t argue there.

I’ve been saying for years now that the only way mankind is getting off this rock is through private enterprise, no government will be able to do it, they have a country to run. That’s not to say NASA is totally useless, they started us on this path by proving it could be done, then proceeded to change our everyday lives in ways most people don’t even realize. NASA will continue to be a great asset to us, but as the private sector gets better equiped, they will be the ones to lead us into the future.

danangel April 25, 2012 at 3:56 AM

Yeah, I was exaggerating when I said we would get nothing in return, but private enterprise seems to get a lot more bang for the buck. Probably because they don’t have all the bureaucrats and levels of redundancy that NASA has. Also, NASA has already done a lot of the R&D, saving the private cos. dollars.

VFRMark April 24, 2012 at 9:00 PM

The space industry has to evolve for us to evolve it’s our natural evolutionary trajectory, other wise as a species we are doomed, you only have to look around at what we are doing to our home world to know that it’s true.

Torbjörn Larsson April 25, 2012 at 7:40 PM

We are evolving more rapidly than ever, likely because our large population makes it possible for smaller fitness differences to become fixated. (I.e. alleles ‘winning’ or ‘losing’.)

What will happen if we migrate is iffy. In most places, including the soon to see maximum population Earth, evolution would proceed slower.

That could be all for the best, we have been domesticating ourselves much longer than our pets. Maybe that is why the maximum brain volume happened when Neanderthals especially but also Ancient man arrived – domesticated animals have smaller brains. As we evolve we will eventually get really, really stu – “oooh, shiny!”

Recent evolutionary results predicts it is sufficient with one (1!) cross mating/generation to keep subpopulations together as a species. As as long as travel times are kept below 1-2 decades, there will still be “one” species. If we reach the Oort cloud, we will likely speciate into very many species indeed.

The lifetime of a mammalian species is a few million years, so our descendant population(s) will soon be something else than sapiens anyway.

We *are* DOOMED! =D

VFRMark April 24, 2012 at 9:16 PM

In space no one can hear you mine. lol

Damian April 25, 2012 at 11:56 AM

Its actually a interesting development. On the face of it the concept is altuaristic, yet you have to wander what (political or social) implications such a venture has. I think most commenters miss the point in thinking that any materials mined would ever come back to earth.

Why bring mass back here when it costs so much to take it up in the first place. No the logical long term implications are to create a manufacturing industry in space that can foster human habitats outside Earths gravity well. However this happens, it is a chance to re invent human society.

Perhaps from the corporate viewpoint its also about escaping the geopolitical status quo on Earth. :)

Skipdallas1 April 25, 2012 at 12:43 PM

How do we know that asteroids are full of these materials? (Platinum etc.) Is this just wishful thinking or extrapolation from what few samples of meteorites we have? Or is there hard evidence for these claims?

krenshala April 25, 2012 at 3:58 PM

It is a combination of observational data from various telescopes and satellites, as well as recovered meteorite fragments. Some of the meteorite fragments have been very rich in useful, and in some cases precious, metals.

krenshala April 25, 2012 at 3:58 PM

It is a combination of observational data from various telescopes and satellites, as well as recovered meteorite fragments. Some of the meteorite fragments have been very rich in useful, and in some cases precious, metals.

Skipdallas1 April 25, 2012 at 4:18 PM

OK! Thanks for the response. I kind of thought that was the case.

bfmorris April 25, 2012 at 6:46 PM

Where does this company get the idea that some of these rocks are rich in platinum? Or, gold even. I haven’t seen any reports exclaiming detection of this.

Regw April 27, 2012 at 11:02 PM

Although it’s a long term project with high hopes and huge, difficult goals, I really hope it succeeds! With regards to cost of launching payloads though, I think it might be more logical to have an off-Earth facility, perhaps on the moon for example, which could possibly launch space vehicles more cheaply, and at the same time process asteroid materials locally.

I3VI5 May 1, 2012 at 12:06 AM

Let me get this straight, Eric Schmidt, Larry Page and the others, who are billionaires by the way, invested in this company in order to get publicity for their upcoming asteroid mining movie?

hahahaha
Thanks for opening my eyes! haha

Just a few questions though:
1. They are already billionaires and famous. Why would they resort to such actions to get publicity?! They wouldn’t need this stunt. Trust me, if Larry Page and James Cameron announced that they are going to make a movie about asteroids, it will make every news channel.

2. Why make it that realistic?! They have been working on this for a couple of years. And their employees are engineers. Including Diamandis, who is already involved in a few other space ventures. I doubt they are good at filming.

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