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Private enterprise plans to mine new worlds

Charles Black, Founder and CEO of Sen
Apr 23, 2012, 23:00 UTC

Sen—A new company, Planetary Resources Inc., has announced its plans to mine Near Earth Asteroids for raw materials, ranging from water to precious metals.  

The Company is targeting asteroids near to Earth and says about 1,500 should be as easy to reach as the Moon.

A 500 metre platinum rich asteroid could contain the same amount of platinum as has been mined in the history of Earth. Planetary Resources point out that many materials that are scarce on Earth exist in near-infinite quantities in space.

In addition to precious resources such as platinum the company will also search for water. Water found and processed on asteroids could be used to assist deep space exploration with the asteroids acting as stepping stones for such missions.

"Water is perhaps the most valuable resource in space. Accessing a water-rich asteroid will greatly enable the large-scale exploration of the solar system. In addition to supporting life, water will also be separated into oxygen and hydrogen for breathable air and rocket propellant,” said Eric Anderson, Co-Founder and Co-Chairman of Planetary Resources, Inc.

Planetary Resources capture asteroid
Small, water-rich, Near-Earth Asteroids can be captured by spacecraft, allowing their resources to be extracted. Image credit: Planetary Resources Inc.

Planetary Resources believe that the venture will benefit humanity:

"Resource extraction from asteroids will deliver multiple benefits to humanity and grow to be valued at tens of billions of dollars annually. The effort will tap into the high concentration of precious metals found on asteroids and provide a sustainable supply to the ever-growing population on Earth."

A swarm of robotic spacecraft
Swarms of low-cost robotic spacecraft will enable extraction of resources from Near-Earth Asteroids. Image credit: Planetary Resources Inc.

The company sees low cost robotic technology as key to achieving its objectives, and has developed its first prospecting space probe, the Arkyd-100 Series. The spacecraft will be used in low-Earth orbit and be used to identify Near Earth Asteroid targets. Once prospects have been identified the company will send out Arkyd-300 Series spacecraft on "swarm expeditions".

Unveiling the plans at a press conference in Seattle, USA were Planetary Resources co-founders and co-chairman Peter Diamandis and space entrepreneur Eric Anderson, as well as new President and Chief Engineer Chris Lewicki, a former NASA employee, and planetary scientist & veteran NASA astronaut Tom Jones.

The business, which was set up in 2009 by Peter Diamandis and Eric Anderson, has received funding from a number of investors including Google founder and CEO Larry Page, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt, Ross Perot Jr, K. Ram Shriram, founder of Sherpalo and a Google director, as well as entrepreneur and space tourist Charles Simonyi. Advisors to the company include Hollywood film director James Cameron.

The company did not discuss the regulatory framework under which it would operate, but the activities are likely to be licensed by the U.S. government, and license terms will need to comply with the government's international treaty obligations. It is not clear how the company sees its property rigths in relation to anything mined from outer worlds. Planetary bodies cannot be "owned" according to the Outer Space Treaty 1967 which the U.S. has ratified. As well as outlawing sovereignty claims, states parties are responsible for ensuring that "non-governmental" organisations, which include private individuals and companies, abide by the law. 

The co-founders and co-chairman of Planetary Resources are Peter Diamandis and Eric Anderson.

Peter Diamandis is the Chairman and CEO of the X PRIZE Foundation which awards substantial cash prizes for achieving innovative challenges such as the Google Lunar X PRIZE which is offering $30m to the first private company to send a robot to the Moon. 

Eric Anderson is a co-founder, President and CEO of space tourism business Space Adventures which has organised the spaceflights of several fee paying astronauts. Space Adventures has also told Sen that it has a booking for a $150m trip to the Moon, though a second customer is required before mission planning can begin.