Planetary Resources Inc. will today release official details of its plan to send an army of robots into space to harvest precious commodities from orbiting asteroids.
The company was set up by Eric C. Anderson, founder of commercial space tourism company Space Adventures and Peter Diamandis, creator of the X-Prize Foundation offering financial incentives for various areas of scientific exploration and development. Planetary Resources Inc. has also received financial backing from Google’s Larry Page and Eric Schmidt. The high profile team of collaborators is also includes former astronaut Tom Jones and film director and deep-sea explorer James Cameron.
So what’s the idea behind this ambitious project? By mining precious metals and bringing them back to Earth, the process would increase the world’s GDP and natural resources massively. In addition, the possibility of accessing water supplies would also greatly increase the likelihood of human settlement.
Regarding the projects mining intentions, it is the platinum-group metals that present the most lucrative prospect. These metals are currently widely used in medical instruments, renewable energy products and potentially in fueling future vehicles. It is thought that mining the top layer of a half-mile-diameter asteroid could realistically produce a staggering return of approximately $6 billion worth of platinum.
One outcome of this increase in platinum would be a significant reduction in its price, a desirable consequence according to founder Anderson: “I would be overjoyed as a company if we brought back so much platinum that the price fell by a factor of 20 or 50,” A drop in price would mean that, a lot like the fall in price of aluminium, it would be more readily available for its multiple applications.
The ability to access water in space is potentially key to the possibility of human settlement in space due to its importance is so many aspects. Not only could it provide drinking water, but it can also be used elsewhere when broken into its constituent parts: hydrogen and oxygen. Oxygen is clearly useful in terms of providing a means to live, whereas the liquid forms of both substances are used in rocket fuel production. This means that the expensive task of transporting water from Earth could be avoided and could provide essential refuelling stations for missions to currently unexplored planets.
There are however many hurdles to overcome regarding the project. Issues involving legal rights to mining in space must be considered, as well as the viability of such an ambitious task. It has been suggested that the process might be of more value once humans have actually settled in space. Wired’s David S. Portree said: “Right now it would be like a big oil tanker dropping anchor off the coast of medieval England…The medieval English might identify the oil as a useful commodity, but wouldn’t be able use enough to profit the tanker crew. Heck, they wouldn’t know how to get it off the tanker, except in wooden pails and rowboats.”