Planetary Resources to Combine Space Exploration and Resources

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A group of investors and aerospace experts have announced a new venture, called Planetary Resources, the purpose of which will be revealed on April 24 at the Museum of Flight on Seattle, according to SpaceRef.

That the company will concern both space exploration and natural resources has set off a wave of speculation about what the venture will be.

Who is backing Planetary Resources?

Attending the Seattle news conference will be Peter H. Diamandis, M.D. of the X Prize Foundation, Eric Anderson of Space Adventures, former NASA Mars mission manager Chris Lewick, and planetary scientist and former NASA astronaut Tom Jones, Ph.D.

Also involved in the Planetary Resources venture are Google's Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, Ph.D., film maker & explorer James Cameron, Chairman of Intentional Software Corporation and Microsoft's former Chief Software Architect Charles Simonyi, Ph.D., Founder of Sherpalo and Google Board of Directors founding member K. Ram Shriram, and Chairman of Hillwood and The Perot Group Ross Perot, Jr. (son of the more famous Ross Perot.)

Will Planetary Resources conduct asteroid mining?

In advance of the press conference, speculation is rife. MIT's Technology Review suspects that it might have something to do with asteroid mining. Diamandis hinted at such an operation in an interview conducted in January. A study conducted by CalTech described the idea of capturing an asteroid and moving it into orbit around the moon where it could be accessed and mined for resources.

What else could Planetary Resources be engaged in?

Mining the moon, especially for water, platinum group metals, and rare earth minerals is another possibility. Space based solar power could be what is being hinted at as well, if one considers sunlight as a natural resource.

What are the economics of asteroid mining?

According the an article on the subject in How Stuff Works, resources that could be mined from asteroids could be worth trillions of dollars. One kilometer diameter sized asteroid alone could have 30 million tons of nickel, 1.5 million tons of metal cobalt and 7,500 tons of platinum according to John Lewis, the author of Mining the Sky.

What about the cost?

The CalTech study envisions a robot spacecraft capturing, detumbling, and then moving an asteroid to lunar orbit for later resource extraction, also by robots. The costs of such an operation, even if it could be counted in the billions, would be likely less than the potential profit such a venture could garner.

Where would the markets be for asteroid resources?

Some minerals, such as platinum, might be worth enough to bring directly to Earth. Space based industrial facilities and a lunar colony might also be customers for such an operation.

One possible hitch: Who owns the asteroid?

Current space law, under the Outer Space Treaty, does not address private ownership of land on other worlds or celestial objects such as an asteroid. Discussions have occurred on how best to address the problem, either by having American courts recognize claims of ownership of space real estate or by a new treaty governing the same.

Mark R. Whittington is the author of Children of Apollo and The Last Moonwalker. He has written on space subjects for a variety of periodicals, including The Houston Chronicle, The Washington Post, USA Today, the L.A. Times, and The Weekly Standard.

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