A newly unveiled company with some high-profile backers — including filmmaker James Cameron and Google co-founder Larry Page — is set to announce plans to mine near-Earth asteroids for resources such as precious metals and water.
Planetary Resources, Inc. intends to sell these materials, generating a healthy profit for itself. But it also aims to advance humanity's exploration and exploitation of space, with resource extraction serving as an anchor industry that helps our species spread throughout the solar system.
"If you look at space resources, the logical next step is to go to the near-Earth asteroids," Planetary Resources co-founder and co-chairman Eric Anderson told SPACE.com. "They're just so valuable, and so easy to reach energetically. Near-Earth asteroids really are the low-hanging fruit of the solar system."
Turns out there's a lot of hard money in space rocks, folks.
Platinum-group metals — ruthenium, rhodium, palladium, osmium, iridium, and platinum — are found in low concentrations on Earth and can be tough to access, which is why they're so expensive. In fact, Anderson said, they don't occur naturally in Earth's crust, having been deposited on our planet over the eons by asteroid impacts.
"We're going to go to the source," Anderson said. "The platinum-group metals are many orders of magnitude easier to access in the high-concentration platinum asteroids than they are in the Earth's crust."
And there are a lot of precious metals up there waiting to be mined. A single platinum-rich space rock 1,650 feet (500 meters) wide contains the equivalent of all the platinum-group metals ever mined throughout human history, company officials said.
Telescope prospecting could begin in a few years and extraction could begin in as soon as 12-15 years by some estimates. It's easiest to grab the low-hanging fruit first and drag near-Earth asteroids into a stable orbit around the Moon. There, unmanned spacecraft could mine the space rocks for tasty metals. Entirely possible to see this stuff get underway in my lifetime.
And some of these space rocks are worth tons of water, too. Considering population growth on the planet and a growing shortage of potable water as the decades advance, good ol' aqua celestia from giant orbital ice cubes could be a valuable resource in the near-future.
Besides, if sci-fi writers are to be believed, you kinda want to invest in the ground floor of a venture like this. Weyland-Yutani Corporation, anyone?