Google Chiefs Back Startup Mining Asteroids for Metals
By Beth Jinks
Google Inc. (GOOG) Chief Executive Officer Larry Page and Chairman Eric Schmidt are among the backers of a venture to mine asteroids for trillions of dollars of precious metals, as Earth’s resources become strained.
Planetary Resources Inc., based in Seattle, aims to launch a telescopic space surveyor into Earth’s low orbit in less than two years to identify potential metal- and water-rich asteroids and begin prospecting within four years, co-founder Eric Anderson, 37, said in a telephone interview.
The venture, which would be the first effort to mine the solar system commercially, has the backing of billionaire Ross Perot, Google board member Kavitark Ram Shriram and International Software Corp. founder Charles Simonyi as well as Page and Schmidt. Within a decade it plans to develop galactic “gas stations” that will use hydrogen and oxygen in asteroid water to refuel spacecraft, including satellites.
“Ripping up the Earth’s crust not only is terribly intrusive from an environmental point of view, but it’s actually really expensive and really hard,” Anderson said. “Why not go to the source? There is ample technology to go to asteroids and begin to use resources that convert them into their constituent elements.”
Robotic mining of asteroids may be cheaper, more efficient and environmentally sustainable than digging on Earth, Anderson says. The company will also identify water-rich asteroids, essential “stepping stones” which could be used for refueling rockets and explorers in future space adventures.
“We’re going to have to use the resources of space in order to explore space,” said Anderson. “Instead of having to build a new telecommunications satellite we can refuel the ones already up there.”
After surveying and identifying precious-metal deposits, such as platinum, in near-Earth asteroids, phase three of the company’s plan is resource extraction, for which it will develop robotic technology.
Platinum is used primarily by the automobile industry to make catalytic converters. Unlike gold and silver, platinum deposits on Earth originated on asteroids that collided with the planet. A single metallic asteroid with a 500-meter diameter likely contains more platinum than all that’s been extracted on Earth, according to Planetary Resources.
“On a 50-year time scale the inclusion of space resources will add literally trillions of dollars to the global GDP,” said Anderson. “We’ll be the first company to do this, but no doubt there will be many others.”
Beyond space mining, Planetary Resources wants more people in space — a mission Anderson and co-founder Peter Diamandis have devoted much of their working lives to.
The pair founded Space Adventures in 1998, the first venture to sell space travel. In the eight trips on Russian rockets to the International Space Station, International Software founder Simonyi has been twice.
Diamandis also started the X Prize Foundation, which offers millions in prize money for grand challenges such as advances in space travel, environmental cleanups, and fuel-efficient vehicles.
Using asteroid water “broken into hydrogen and oxygen is the most efficient rocket fuel there is,” Anderson said. “That provides the radical cost reduction required to really open up space.”
His confidence in the speed we’ll colonize the solar system is less emphatic than his conviction asteroids will make trillions within years.
“Hopefully within my lifetime I’ll see the first sustainable colonies on the moon and Mars,” said Anderson, a self-professed fan of the original “Star Wars” movies and everything “Star Trek.”