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Observations

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Planetary Resources' Crazy Plan to Mine an Asteroid May Not Be So Crazy

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Vesta, asteroid, Dawn, space

The asteroid Vesta

In a widely anticipated announcement today, the new company Planetary Resources revealed their plans for near-Earth asteroid domination. The group has mapped out a multi-stage process to map, observe, capture, tow and eventually mine asteroids for valuables. "A single 500-meter platinum-rich asteroid contains the equivalent of all the platinum group metals mined in history," reads the company's press release. The first steps are already underway: the company plans to launch a small telescope dedicated to asteroid hunting by the end of 2013, according to Phil Plait, who wrote an excellent description of the project at his Bad Astronomy blog.

Platinum isn't the only prize. As the company sees it, the goal is not to pillage space for materials we need on Earth so much as to develop the near-Earth infrastructure for space exploration. Water, for instance, is heavy and essential—you can't very well freeze-dry it like ice cream—but many asteroids contain a lot of ice that can be extracted (though exactly how remains unclear). "Our mission is not only to expand the world's resource base, but we want to increase people's access to, and understanding of, our planet and solar system by developing capable and cost-efficient systems," said Chris Lewicki, the president of Planetary Resources and its chief engineer, in the release.

The project's motivation becomes more evident when you take a look at its roster of investors, which includes Larry Page and Eric Schmidt of Google; Charles Simonyi, former chief software architect for Microsoft; Ross Perot Jr., former chairman of technology company Perot Systems; and the filmmaker James Cameron. Page and Schmidt have demonstrated their interest in space exploration with their sponsorship of the Google X Prize contest to land a rover on the moon. Simonyi has twice bought himself a ride to the International Space Station, and James Cameron has an exploration bug which recently made him the first person in a half century to reach the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Like Paul Allen, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk before them, these technology entrepreneurs are spending their billions to conquer the last frontier. Whereas the Carnegies and Fords of a century ago may have used their riches to fix the planet's problems, the tech giants of today are funding a ticket off. (Bill Gates is a notable exception.)

Despite initial skepticism, the Planetary Resources plan seems like it is at least not totally insane. The company is not claiming to be able to lasso platinum-laden space rocks back down to Earth. Rather they have outlined a cautious step-by-step approach that is not unlike the exploratory strategy that NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory mission architects Damon Lindau and Nathan Strange laid out in Scientific American's December 2011 issue. Asteroid towing is also theoretically possible, as described by scientists and astronauts in a 2003 SciAm article about how to prevent a dangerous asteroid from ending civilization. If the company can establish an orbital base, a mining operation could in theory extract the energy and materials it needed to operate, eventually making it self-sustaining. If only the same thing could be said of its home planet.

Image of the asteroid Vesta as seen by the Dawn spacecraft courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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