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A Bellevue company hopes to use robotic spacecraft to mine near–earth asteroids. Image courtesy Plannetary Resources.

A Bellevue company hopes to use robotic spacecraft to mine near–earth asteroids. Image courtesy Plannetary Resources.

KUOW News

Bellevue Company Announces Ambitious Effort To Mine Asteroids

Deborah Wang
04/25/2012

A group of space enthusiasts, scientists and billionaires have unveiled an unusual new business enterprise. Planetary Resources is a Bellevue–based company. It plans to launch robots into space to mine asteroids.

Company officials unveiled their plans at the Museum of Flight yesterday. They say the business is potentially worth trillions of dollars. KUOW's Deborah Wang has more.



TRANSCRIPT

The storyline sounds a little like that 1998 Hollywood film, "Armageddon."

Willis: "The United States government just asked us to save the world. Anyone want to say no?"

That's the one where Bruce Willis and his team of deep–core drillers land on an incoming asteroid and blow it to bits.

Willis: "Do you think I'm gonna quit?"

This endeavor is a little less dramatic, though.

Planetary Resources is interested in what are called near–earth asteroids. Scientists have identified about 9,000 of them, and the company says about 1,500 of those are as easy to reach as the moon.

Eric Anderson is the company's co–founder. He's made a business of sending private citizens into space.

Anderson: "Asteroids have existed for literally billions of years and have some of the most interesting and valuable materials that we will need, not only in our future in space, but also for our future in Earth."

Asteroids are known to contain metals, like iron, nickel and the precious metal, platinum — that sells for about $1,500 an ounce. They also can contain significant quantities of water.

Company officials say even a small asteroid could contain up to $100 billion worth of raw materials.

Within a decade, the company hopes to launch unmanned rockets carrying robots to nearby asteroids. They would mine the materials and then either bring them back to Earth or else put them to use in space.

Peter Diamandis is a company co–founder. He also heads up the X–Prize Foundation.

Diamandis: "So people ask, can it really be done, how difficult is it? Let me say it can be done, and yes, it's very difficult, there is no question. We are talking about something which is extraordinarily difficult. But the returns economically and the benefit to humanity are extraordinary."

Diamandis won't venture how much it will cost, but he says that improving technology will make the effort commercially viable.

Several wealthy investors are backing the effort, including Google's Larry Paige and Eric Schmidt, and former Microsoft executive and space tourist Charles Simonyi. Hollywood director James Cameron is an advisor, as are several former NASA astronauts and engineers.

But not everybody is convinced it will succeed.

Brownlee: "I don't know. I am skeptical that they can make it work."

Don Brownlee is a professor of astronomy at the University of Washington. He's an expert on asteroids and comets. He says he's excited by the effort, and he thinks it will benefit science, but he questions whether it will ever be a commercial success.

Brownlee: "Space is a really unforgiving medium, I mean, you can look at the history of putting things into space, and despite the best intentions and colossal amounts of money, you know, it's a very, very risky business."

The company's first step will be to launch a satellite telescope into orbit to study nearby asteroids. That could come within the next two years.

I'm Deborah Wang, KUOW News.

© Copyright 2012, KUOW

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