Ah, we’re living in the future indeed. It’s official. It’s official! James Cameron, Google and a gaggle of other wealthy individuals-institutions-whatever are taking us asteroid mining.
A newly unveiled company with some high-profile backers – including filmmaker James Cameron and Google co-founder Larry Page – is set to announce plans to mine near-Earth asteroids for resources such as precious metals and water.
Planetary Resources, Inc. intends to sell these materials, generating a healthy profit for itself. But it also aims to advance humanity’s exploration and exploitation of space, with resource extraction serving as an anchor industry that helps our species spread throughout the solar system.
“If you look at space resources, the logical next step is to go to the near-Earth asteroids,” Planetary Resources co-founder and co-chairman Eric Anderson told SPACE.com. “They’re just so valuable, and so easy to reach energetically. Near-Earth asteroids really are the low-hanging fruit of the solar system.”
Two of the resources the company plans to mine are platinum-group metals and water, Anderson said. [Images: Planetary Resources' Asteroid Mining Plans]
Platinum-group metals – ruthenium, rhodium, palladium, osmium, iridium, and platinum – are found in low concentrations on Earth and can be tough to access, which is why they’re so expensive. In fact, Anderson said, they don’t occur naturally in Earth’s crust, having been deposited on our planet over the eons by asteroid impacts.
“We’re going to go to the source,” Anderson said. “The platinum-group metals are many orders of magnitude easier to access in the high-concentration platinum asteroids than they are in the Earth’s crust.”
And there are a lot of precious metals up there waiting to be mined. A single platinum-rich space rock 1,650 feet (500 meters) wide contains the equivalent of all the platinum-group metals ever mined throughout human history, company officials said.
“When the availability of these metals increase[s], the cost will reduce on everything including defibrillators, hand-held devices, TV and computer monitors, catalysts,” Planetary Resources co-founder and co-chairman Peter Diamandis said in a statement. “And with the abundance of these metals, we’ll be able to use them in mass production, like in automotive fuel cells.”
Many asteroids are rich in water, too, another characteristic the company plans to exploit. Once extracted, this water would be sold in space, providing significant savings over water launched from the ground.
Asteroid water could help astronauts stay hydrated and grow food, provide radiation shielding for spaceships and be broken into its constituent hydrogen and oxygen, the chief components of rocket fuel, Anderson said.
Planetary Resources hopes its mining efforts lead to the establishment of in-space “gas stations” that could help many spacecraft refuel, from Earth-orbiting satellites to Mars-bound vessels.
“We’re really talking about enabling the exploration of deep space,” Anderson said. “That’s what really gets me excited.” [Future Visions of Human Spaceflight]
Pretty goddamn exciting stuff.