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On April 23 at Seattle’s Museum of Flight, Planetary Resources, Inc. announced and revealed their plans to search for and mine asteroids for their precious metals and water. With this mission, its members hope to provide more resources for the Earth and humans and reduce the cost of space travel. Billions to trillions of dollars can be contributed to the global gross domestic profit.
As for a more intrinsic motivation, Planetary Resources also hopes to advance human exploration in space.
The money and means largely come from the founders and backers of the group, which include Google co-founder and CEO Larry Page, Eric Anderson (who founded Space Adventures, which arranged space flights for millionaires) Ross Perot Jr. (the chairman of the Board of Perot Systems), Charles Simonyi (who was a part of the team that devised Microsoft Office Suite), filmmaker James Cameron, and Peter Diamandis (founder and chairman of the X Prize Foundation).
Asteroids are space junk – leftovers from when the planets in our solar system fully formed. Their sizes range from several meters to over one thousand kilometers across. Composition varies, though they are mostly made of metals, some of which are present on Earth (“common” ones such as iron and nickel) and some of which are rare on our planet (platinum, for example.) Some asteroids consist of a significant amount of frozen water along with metals.
“Everything we hold of value on Earth — metals, minerals, energy, water, real estate — are literally in near-infinite quantities in space,” Diamandis tells ABC News.
To conserve time, money, and fuel, Planetary Resources plans to mine asteroids near Earth. Thousands possibly float nearby – many of them too small to be detected. Most that will be mined would be more reachable than the Moon since Earth’s gravitational tends to capture smaller space objects, including asteroids.
The mission is divided into sections. Before getting straight to the mining, the group will first build a low-orbiting telescope that will be able to sieve out the asteroids that show the most promise for harvesting (ten percent of over a thousand). The approximate launch date has not yet determined.
Then comes the actual mining. Subsequent to finding the asteroids via telescope, the group will launch space probes containing unmanned robots, which will be sent out by rocket boosters built by private American companies, by the Russians, or by any other source willing to build them for affordable prices.
As Phillip Plait in writes in his blog “Bad Astronomy,” volatiles (oxygen, nitrogen, and water) will be garnered primarily for the sake of having additional resources. The water will either be converted into hydrogen for rocket fuel and oxygen, or it can be broken down to its basic elements for easier and cheaper transport.
After the volatiles, the robots will mine for the precious metals: platinum, palladium, iridium, and ruthenium, and others, all of which are difficult to access on Earth and only exist on the planet because of impacts from asteroids.
“When the availability of these metals increase[s], the cost will reduce on everything including defibrillators, hand-held devices, TV and computer monitors, catalysts,” Diamandis continues. “And with the abundance of these metals, we’ll be able to use them in mass production, like in automotive fuel cells.”
To further save costs, the robots will have the option of storing the metals and water in supply depots in space instead of bringing to resources back to Earth straight away.
Is Planetary Resources’ plan is completely ludicrous? Not really. Mining asteroids is not is not a novel concept. Plait continues writes that he thinks “getting to the asteroids will do just fine,” and to American astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who recently appeared on the Daily Show, the idea is “not bulls#*t.”