WASHINGTON — A group of high-tech tycoons wants to mine nearby asteroids, hoping to turn science fiction into real profits.
The megamillion-dollar plan is to use commercially built robotic ships to squeeze rocket fuel and valuable minerals like platinum and gold out of the lifeless rocks that routinely whiz by Earth. One of the company founders predicts they could have their version of a space-based gas station up and running by 2020.
The inaugural step, to be achieved in the next 18 to 24 months, would be launching the first in a series of private telescopes that would search for rich asteroid targets.
Several scientists not involved in the project said they were simultaneously thrilled and skeptical, calling the plan daring, difficult — and highly expensive. They struggle to see how it could be cost-effective, even with platinum and gold worth nearly $1,600 an ounce. An upcoming NASA mission to return just 2 ounces of an asteroid to Earth will cost about $1 billion.
The entrepreneurs announcing the project Tuesday in Seattle have a track record of making big money off ventures into space. Company founders Eric Anderson and Peter Diamandis pioneered the idea of selling rides into space to tourists, and Diamandis’ company offers “weightless” airplane flights.
Investors and advisers to the new company, Planetary Resources Inc. of Seattle, include Google CEO Larry Page and Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and explorer and filmmaker James Cameron.
The mining, fuel processing and later refueling would all be done without humans, Anderson said.
“It is the stuff of science fiction, but like in so many other areas of science fiction, it’s possible to begin the process of making them reality,” said former astronaut Thomas Jones, an adviser to the company.
The target-hunting telescopes would be tubes a couple of feet long, weighing a few dozen pounds and small enough to be held in a hand. They should cost less than $10 million, company officials said.
The idea that asteroids could be mined for resources has been around for years.
Asteroids are mostly rock and metal and range from a couple of dozen feet wide to nearly 10 miles long. The new venture targets free-flying asteroids, seeking to extract from them the rare Earth platinum metals that are used in batteries, electronics and medical devices, Diamandis said.
Water can be broken down in space to liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen for rocket fuel. The plan is to take water from an asteroid to a spot in space where it can be converted into fuel. From there, it can easily and cheaply be shipped to Earth orbit for refueling commercial satellites or spaceships.
Recently, NASA and other space agencies have shifted their attention from the moon and planets toward asteroids. Because asteroids don’t have any substantial gravity, targeting them costs less fuel and money than going to the moon, Anderson said.
“Before we started launching people into space as private citizens, people thought that was a pie-in-the-sky idea,” Anderson said. “We’re in this for decades. But it’s not a charity. And we’ll make money from the beginning.”
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NASA’s 2016 asteroid sampling mission: http://osiris-rex.lpl.arizona.edu/