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A space cage is one idea being considered to extract ice and precious metals from a crumbly asteroid. Credit: Planetary Resources A space cage is one idea being considered to extract ice and precious metals from a crumbly asteroid. Credit: Planetary Resources

New company to join the asteroid gold rush

Sen— A new space company will announce plans to mine the minor planets at a press conference in Santa Monica, California, tomorrow, 22 January.

Deep Space Industries intends to build a fleet of commercial asteroid-prospecting spacecraft that can harvest and process these chunks of space rock.

Until tomorrow's event, the company's founders are keeping a tight lid on further information about their plans to plunder precious resources for profit.

But their targets are likely to be a class of minor planet called Near-Earth Asteroids which have orbits bringing them close to us on their journeys around the Sun.

These asteroids could provide not only precious metals such as gold, platinum and osmium but ice that could be converted into drinking water for astronauts and rocket fuel.

They will want to tackle a type of asteroid that is like a crumbly pile of rubble, similar to Itokawa which was visited by the Japanese probe Hayabusa in 2005, rather than the more solid objects. That is simply because it will be easier to get at their assets.

Another company, formed from an assortment of tycoons, has already emerged in 2012 to announce similar space mining plans, convinced that even a small asteroid can be worth billions of dollars.

Planetary Resources is a US company led jointly by Eric Anderson, who also heads Space Adventures which has already sent several wealthy clients to the International Space Station.

Anderson is co-founder and co-chairman of Planetary Resources with Peter H Diamandis and they are being backed by famous investors including Eric Schmidt and Larry Page of Google. Avatar director James Cameron is an advisor.

The detail of how they will achieve their goal is still being worked out. But they aim to use robots to snare passing Near-Earth Asteroids. Anderson told Sen that asteroids could provide not only precious metals such as gold, platinum and osmium but ice that could be converted into drinking water for astronauts and rocket fuel.

He said: "We can use asteroid ice to create propellant depots and gas stations in the Solar System that will rapidly reduce the cost of human spaceflight.

A swarm of robotic spacecraftA swarm of robotic spacecraft tackle an asteroid rich in precious commodities. Credit: Planetary Rescources

"The fact is space around our planet is a sea of infinite resources. Yes, we face a lot of challenges. But 40 years ago the prospect of pulling oil from the North Sea from an oil platform seemed absurd. We do things all the time that are at the edge of achievable."

Planetary Resources has a tight-knit team of around 30 that includes people who gained experience at NASA. Their president and chief engineer is Chris Lewicki who was Flight Director for the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity, and Surface Mission Manager for Phoenix lander.

He told Sen: "The volatile resources of asteroids, namely the water, is extremely useful for helping to further explore space itself. We can use it for fuel, we can use to support life and for radiation shielding.

"And with that fuel supply we can use for rocket fuel we can then also access the valuable elements and minerals that are on some asteroids. An abundance of them would certainly help our technological society."

The asteroid ItokawaThe crumbly asteroid Itokawa pictured in 2005 by Japan's Hayabusa probe. Credit: ISAS, JAXA

First stage will be to build a fleet of small Arkyd 100 space telescopes, dubbed Leo, for Low Earth Orbit, to discover small asteroids and check what they are made of. These could be launched by fellow private space company Virgin Galactic. Later similar spacecraft will be fitted with engines and sent to the asteroids to discover more about them.

Lewicki told us: "There certainly will need to be several new technologies developed. We don't know what specific techniques will be necessary. We're working on our telescopes right now and anticipate that we'll have a constellation of those, maybe a half dozen or more eyes in the sky, in orbit in a little bit less than two years time.

"I think we'll certainly be in the proximity of an asteroid and trying to acquire water in very small amounts probably by the end of the decade."

Update: By chance, Planetary Resources issued a video today in which Chris Lewicki gives an update on development of the Arkyd 100 space telescopes.

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