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A plan to extract cosmic riches

Using space-faring robots to mine precious metals from asteroids almost sounds easy when former astronaut Tom Jones describes it -- practically like clearing a snow-covered driveway.

Jones, an adviser to a bold venture that aims to extract gold, platinum and rocket fuel from the barren space rocks, said many near-Earth asteroids have a loose rocky surface held together only weakly by gravity.

"It shouldn't be too hard to invent a machine like a snow blower to pick up material off these asteroids," explained Jones, a veteran of four space shuttle missions.

But it will be risky and monstrously expensive, which is why some of the biggest and richest names in high-technology -- including the barons of Google and filmmaker James Cameron -- are behind the project.

If the plan gets off the ground as planned, robots could be extracting cosmic riches within 10 years.

Outside experts are skeptical because the program would probably require untold millions or perhaps billions of dollars, plus huge advances in technology. Yet the same entrepreneurs behind this idea also pioneered the selling of space rides to tourists -- a notion that seemed fanciful not long ago.

"Since my early teenage years, I've wanted to be an asteroid miner. I always viewed it as a glamorous vision of where we could go," Peter Diamandis, one of the founders of Planetary Resources Inc., told a news conference Tuesday.

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 the right type of asteroids.

The proposal is to use commercially built robotic ships to squeeze rocket fuel and valuable minerals out of the rocks that routinely whiz by Earth.

The entrepreneurs of Planetary Resources have a track record of profiting from space ventures. Diamandis and co-founder Eric Anderson led the way in selling space rides to tourists, and Diamandis has a separate company that offers "weightless" airplane flights.

Investors and advisers to the new company include Google CEO Larry Page, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and Cameron, the man behind the Hollywood blockbusters "Titanic" and "Avatar."

There are probably 1,500 asteroids that pass near Earth that would be good initial targets. They are at least 160 feet wide, and Anderson figures 10 percent have water and valuable minerals.

Richard Binzel, professor of planetary science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said the effort "may be many decades ahead of its time. But you have to start somewhere."