Director and explorer James Cameron has joined an ambitious project to collect natural resources in space. Unlike his blockbuster, the endeavor is likely to be closer to Armageddon-style asteroid mining.
There are painstakingly few details on Planetary Resources, a startup co-founded by Eric Anderson, a former NASA Mars mission manager, and Peter Diamandis, the commercial space entrepreneur behind the X-Prize competition.
The press-release informing of its launch next Tuesday says “the company will overlay two critical sectors – space exploration and natural resources – to add trillions of dollars to the global GDP.” It further pledges to redefine the meaning of “natural resources” and launch a new industry.
The nature of the future enterprise is still not clear, but the media widely speculate that Planetary Resources is aiming at drilling asteroids for rare earths and other valuable materials. In a Forbes interview earlier this year Diamandis said: “Since childhood, I wanted to do one thing – be an asteroid miner. So stay tuned on that one.”
Planetary Resources is likely to find it challenging to kick-start a space gold rush, especially without an unobtanium-like mineral to justify the risks. There are thousands of Near Earth Asteroids (NEA), with an estimated worth ranging between $1 billion and $25 billion if they could be sold.
But even then transportation costs and lack of proven extraction technology would require a great amount of planning and a certain amount of luck to make profit.
Asteroids contain valuables ranging from precious metals to volatile hydrocarbons to water. Some of those are crucial for further exploration of space and are potentially cheaper extracted in orbit than launched from earth. Others are needed for modern industries and are in short supply.
For instance, China’s ban on the export of rare earths may prompt undersupplied companies to turn their eyes to the sky. However such a shortage on a large scale is not expected for at least several decades to come.
Harvesting raw materials in space is possible with modes of technology currently available or expected to be developed in a matter of decades. A robotic mission may capture a smaller NEA with a diameter of several meters and slow it down enough to bring into low-Earth orbit for further processing.
As a bonus, no nation has sovereignty over space, so its riches are free for anyone to come and get it from a legal point of view.
But in practice such a mission has numerous challenges, from identifying an asteroid with proper orbit and composition to timing it to return the investment fast enough. Planetary Resources apparently are more likely to become trailblazers of private space exploration than future asteroid-drilling trillionaires.
Apart from Cameron, the venture managed to attract such backers as Google’s billionaire co-founder Larry Page, executive chairman Eric Schmidt and director K. Ram Shriram. There is also the chairman of Perot Systems, Ross Perot, Jr.
Last but not least, ex-Microsoft top executive Charles Simonyi is listed as both an investor and executive at Planetary Resources. In addition to being a billionaire, he is a private space explorer, who has twice bought his way to the International Space Station.