Asteroid Mining Coming Via Google and Co.?

Taking platinum, other precious metals and rare minerals from asteroids is the focus of new company backed by Google founders and James Cameron.

THE GIST

- The private company, Planetary Resources, plans to survey and mine precious metals and minerals from asteroids.

- The first step is to design fleets of small low-cost probes that can travel beyond low-Earth orbit.

- There are thousands of asteroids that come close enough to Earth and that are easier to get to than the moon.

A new company is developing low-cost, deep-space robotic probes to survey and mine near-Earth asteroids, officials will announce Tuesday.

While the ultimate pay dirt is expected to be platinum and rare metals -- currently selling for about $1,500 an ounce -- Planetary Resources also expects to extract water and other raw materials from some of the thousands of asteroids that pass relatively close to Earth.

Water, for example, could be processed into fuel by breaking apart the oxygen and hydrogen molecules. It then could be sold commercially from fuel depots in orbit to NASA and other entities conducting robotic and human space missions.

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"If we could essentially set up a gas station in space that decreases the cost of exploration and development of the solar system by an order of magnitude right off the bat," Eric Anderson, co-founder of Planetary Resources, told Discovery News.

Longer-term, the company, based outside Seattle, wants to develop techniques to extract precious metals and minerals from asteroids and return them to Earth. An asteroid about one-third as long as a football field could have as much as $25 billion to $50 billion worth of platinum at today's prices, added Peter Diamandis, a long-time space entrepreneur who is partnered with Anderson on the project.

The company did not release details on how it would transport an asteroid or pieces of an asteroid back to Earth for mining, nor how much money it would take to do the job.

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The first step is to fly a demonstration spacecraft in 18 to 24 months that will serve as an observation platform around Earth.

Planetary Resources' goal is to revolutionize robotic deep-space exploration and commercialization by designing small, extremely low-cost probes.

"You'd be amazed if you look at the kind of technology developed over last 20 to 30 years to do things like go to the bottom of North Sea and pull fossil fuels from far underneath the ocean. That was something people thought was impossible as recently as the late 1980s. There are huge investments in this industry because there literally are huge pots of gold at the end of the rainbow. Ultimately, there is no question that platinum group metals and other very scarce metals and minerals will be coming from space for a future Earth-based economy," Anderson said

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The venture has drawn a list of high-profile investors, including Google executives Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, filmmaker James Cameron and former Microsoft software chief Charles Simonyi, who flew twice to the International Space Station as a private space traveler.

Details about the company are expected to be announced at press conference Tuesday afternoon.

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