Google executives Larry Page, Eric Schmidt and filmmaker James Cameron are among those bankrolling a venture to survey and extract precious metals and rare minerals from asteroids that orbit near Earth. They`re calling this venture Planetary Resources. Planetary Resources' first customers are likely to be science agencies, such as NASA, as well as private research institutes.
The first step would be launching a series of private telescopes that would search for rich asteroid targets. This will be done with the next 18 to 24 months. Within five to 10 years, however, the company expects to progress from selling observation platforms in orbit around Earth to prospecting services. It plans to tap some of the thousands of asteroids that pass relatively close to Earth and extract their raw materials.
Not all missions would return precious metals and minerals to Earth. In addition to mining for precious metals, the company plans to tap asteroids' water to supply orbiting fuel depots, which could be used by NASA and others for robotic and human space missions. The company plans to develop technologies to cut the cost of deep-space robotic probes to one-tenth to one-hundredth the cost of current space missions, which run hundreds of millions of dollars. Among the targeted technologies is optical laser communications, which would eliminate the need for large radio antennas aboard spacecraft.
Planetary Resources, which currently employs about 20 people, is overseen by former NASA Mars mission manager Chris Lewicki. It was founded about three years ago, but has been operating quietly behind the scenes until now.