In Pursuit of Riches, and Travelers’ Supplies, in the Asteroid Belt [space mining] – by Kenneth Chang (New York Times – April 24, 2012)

Perhaps it will be a platinum rush that finally opens up the final frontier. On Tuesday, a new company called Planetary Resources Inc. will unveil its plans to mine asteroids that zip close by Earth, both to provide supplies for future interplanetary travelers and to bring back precious metals like platinum.

The venture may sound far-fetched — perhaps along the lines of Newt Gingrich’s campaign promise to colonize the moon — but it has already attracted some big-name investors, including Larry Page and Eric Schmidt of Google, as well as profitable technology development contracts.

“If you believe that resources in space are critical towards a space-faring future, you will inevitably come to the result that the asteroids — in fact, the near-Earth asteroids — are the steppingstones to the rest of the solar system,” Eric C. Anderson, one of the company’s co-founders, said in a telephone interview.

He was quick to add that the company’s business premise was not as impractical as it might sound. Because an asteroid is devoid of air and its gravitational pull is negligible, getting there is relatively easy. Unlike landing on the moon or Mars, a robotic mining spacecraft would not need parachutes or a large engine to fly up to and attach itself to a small asteroid.

“There are probably about 1,500 near-Earth asteroids that are energetically easier to reach than the surface of the moon,” Mr. Anderson said.

Some of the asteroids are icy — up to 20 percent water — and the water could be drawn out by melting the ice. The water could be taken to supply stopovers for future astronauts or broken down into breathable oxygen or propellant for spacecraft on interplanetary missions.

Other asteroids are rocky and metallic. A throng of robotic mining spacecraft could grind up pieces of the asteroid and smelt it to capture precious metals within.

Platinum — which is used for jewelry, electronics components and automobile catalytic converters — fetches about $1,500 an ounce these days, so a single spacecraft would not have to bring back a lot of it for the enterprise to make money. More common metals like iron could perhaps be used as raw materials in space factories, churning out spacecraft and other structures.

Mr. Anderson and Peter H. Diamandis, the other founder of Planetary Resources, are already in the space tourism business with a company called Space Adventures, which has arranged eight trips to the International Space Station. While that venture has been a “reasonably good success story,” Mr. Diamandis said, “the realization, at least for us, was it wasn’t on track to really drive humanity opening the space frontier at the level that we desire.”

About three years ago, Mr. Diamandis recalled, he and Mr. Anderson asked the question, “So what’s next?”

They set up Planetary Resources a couple of years ago, but have kept quiet about it until now. The president and chief engineer is Christopher A. Lewicki, who previously worked as a manager on Mars missions at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Based in Bellevue, Wash., the company employs about 25 engineers and has development contracts for technologies like laser communications that it believes it will need for prospecting and mining missions.

“The company is cash flow positive, already,” Mr. Anderson said.

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