Planetary Resources Inc., a high-powered investor group with deep roots in the Internet, software and aerospace industries, plans a long-term commercial effort to profit from robotically identifying and prospecting for water, precious metals and other raw materials on near-Earth asteroids (NEAs).
The Seattle-based company’s initial mission, the launch of its first multi-purpose space telescope for NEA surveys and compatible technology demonstrations, the Arkyd-100, could unfold within two years. Closeup asteroid reconnaissance could follow within three to five years, using advanced versions of the assembly line probes equipped with propulsion sources.
Actual earnings-paced prospecting of asteroids for water, platinum and other financially attractive resources that could be delivered to strategically placed space depots in low Earth orbit or Lagrange points as rocket propellant and life support resources, or potentially transported to Earth, could be underway within 30 years, according to the company’s development strategy.
“This is the engine that will expand our economic sphere of influence beyond Low Earth Orbit to gain the resources of space,” Peter Diamandis, the company’s co-founder, told a Seattle news briefing April 24. “People ask can this really be done? It can be done. But we are talking about something that is extraordinarily difficult. However, the return economically and the benefits to humanity are extraordinary.”
’s deep-space human exploration program, aiming for a human mission to a yet-to-be-selected asteroid by 2025, the , commercial space and research nonprofits as well as international space agencies are envisioned as near to far-term potential markets.
Platinum, a rare terrestrial metal that is of special interest to Planetary Resources’ long-range plans, closed at just under $1,660 an ounce on the futures market last week, slightly under the price of gold. One 500-meter (1,640-ft.), platinum-rich asteroid could yield the equivalent of all platinum group metals mined from the Earth and currently in high demand for applications ranging from computer monitors to defibrillators and automobile fuel cells, according to the company. Planetary Resources, however, is focused on near- as well as a long-term profits.
“We have identified a technology roadmap that gets us all the way out to resource extraction and delivery of those materials to a market,” says Chris Lewicki, president and chief engineer. “We’ve identified commercial revenue-generating opportunities at every point along the way to sustain our activities—so we are not working for a decade on investor money before we see a profit.”
Diamandis, the X-Prize Foundation chairman, and Eric Anderson, Space Adventures chairman, founded the company two years ago. They were joined at the Seattle Museum of Flight by Lewicki, a formerflight systems engineer, and advisor Tom Jones, a former NASA shuttle astronaut and planetary scientist.
The company’s financiers are led by Google CEO Larry Page and Ross Perot, Jr., chairman of the Perot Group. The investment team includes Eric Schmidt, Google executive chairman; Charles Simonyi, chairman of Intentional Software Corp., and the world’s only two-time space tourist; and K. Ram Shriram, founder of Sherpalo, a venture capital group.
“When we get out to the near-Earth asteroids we are talking about complementing NASA’s science and human exploration efforts,” Jones says. “The commercial sector has the ability to build multiple simple, small spacecraft that can access these objects. We can accept failure in the way very expensive government spacecraft programs don’t like to accept. The commercial sector can mount missions at a faster pace than the one per decade that NASA is able to afford.”
“This would not be an appropriate investment for NASA,” Simonyi says. “As a taxpayer, I certainly would not be super happy about it if I saw an announcement. This is where private enterprise comes in. That is the genius of the system. Private investors can take the risk.”
The company’s initial focus is the Arkyd-100 space telescope, a compact remote-sensing observatory with visible and near-infrared optics that can be launched for customers as a secondary payload on a range of U.S., French, Russian and Indian commercial rockets.
“That’s a key part of our approach to keeping costs in check,” Lewicki says. “We are designing the spacecraft to be as compatible with as many secondary or ride-sharing opportunities as possible.”
The orbital prototype will be modified to meet deep-space reconnaissance needs.
“It’s a very target-rich environment,” Lewicki says of the growing known population of 9,000-10,000 NEAs, including the 1,500 considered more energetically accessible than the Moon.
“We will contribute to what is currently a worldwide effort to characterize near-Earth asteroids, their detection and tracking, and a modest amount of spectral work to characterize potential NASA targets,” he says.
Planetary Resources is already partnering with NASA for the evaluation of a single optical device on a future Arkyd spacecraft to handle navigation and long-distance communications as well as reconnaissance, according to Lewicki.
The company, established two years ago, is building on NASA’s current Dawn mission at Vesta; Japan’s seven-year Hayabusa mission, which returned to Earth with grains of the asteroid Itokawa in 2010; and NASA’s five-year Near mission, which touched down on the asteroid Eros in early 2001, Lewicki says.