Earlier this week, Bellevue, WA based Planetary Resources announced an extremely bold and almost impossible sounding plan - To extract precious metals and rare minerals from some of the hundreds of asteroids that zip by Earth, each year.
While the idea may sound far-fetched, most experts are treating it seriously. That's because the company's founders Eric Anderson and Peter Diamandis are both Space experts and amongst the pioneers in the commercialization of outer space travel. What makes it even more credible are the people funding the company - An impressive list that includes Google co-founder Larry Page and filmmaker James Cameron.
However, before the company can fulfill its lofty goal it has many challenges. The biggest, is the expense of sending a mining spacecraft to outer space, which currently can cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Also, there is the issue of being able to identify the asteroids and more importantly, determining which are the right ones to mine.
Planetary Resources plans to tackle these challenges in four stages. The first, is to build spacecrafts fitted with remote sensing technology. Called the Arkyd 100 series, they will be sent into low earth orbits where they will not only identify and track near-earth asteroids, but also, determine their size, orbits and composition. To keep the costs of sending them to Space low, they will piggyback off commercial space launches that are currently in development by companies like Virgin Inc. and Space-X. The telescopes will also have the capability of pointing down at earth and collecting valuable data that the the company plans to sell to universities, private research firms and even, NASA.
Once all the kinks are worked out, the company will embark on developing more advanced spacecraft - the Arkyd 200 series. These, will have not only hold more sophisticated equipment, but also, be launched into higher orbits to better track the asteroids and, be fitted with a propulsion system so they can be moved to different positions.
Next, will be the Arkyd 300 series. This will entail launching a group of Arkyds that are all networked so that they coordinate and decide whether an asteroid is right for mining. The company envisions that they will work on collecting different data - Some will take pictures from different angles, while others, will be responsible for relaying the information to earth so that an informed decision can be reached. While it sounds simple, there are many technological challenges that the company will have to surmount to develop this kind of robotic collaboration in Space.
The final challenge of course, will be to mine the asteroid, which could be tricky given the zero gravity environment. If the company does succeed, they will next have to figure out how to bring goods back to earth or transport the water to nearby space stations. This is something the Planetary Resources is still trying to map out - But, given that they have at least a decade before they get to this stage, they have plenty of time.
If Planetary Resources is able to accomplish what they have set themselves up for, the returns could be enormous because a 98-foot asteroid could hold, as much as, $50 billion USD worth of platinum at today's prices. We shall all have to wait and see, how it all unfolds.
Resources: forbes.com, planetoryresources.com