Billionaire-backed asteroid mining venture starts with space telescopes
The venture known as Planetary Resources eventually plans to go asteroid mining — but the first step in the billionaire-backed business plan is to launch an orbital fleet of "personal space telescopes" capable of looking out into the heavens or back down on Earth.
Right now, the idea of sending robotic drilling operations to near-Earth asteroids, extracting water for powering interplanetary spaceships — and, by the way, turning that into a profitable business — sounds like pure science fiction. But to quote Planetary Resources' president and chief engineer, Chris Lewicki: "Everything is science fiction right up to the point that it's science fact."
Lewicki knows his way around an outer-space challenge. He's been involved in managing NASA's twin Mars rover missions as well as the Phoenix Mars Lander mission, which made the first on-the-spot observations of Red Planet water ice. Even by that scale, however, his new mission at Planetary Resources is special. It's not just a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. "Maybe once in a species, that kind of opportunity comes along," he told me.
The venture, which was hinted at last week and is being formally unveiled Tuesday at Seattle's Museum of Flight, is sufficiently down to Earth to attract funding from such A-list investors as Google CEO Larry Page, Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt, Texas billionaire Ross Perot Jr. and spacefaring software executive Charles Simonyi. Filmmaker James Cameron has signed on as a senior adviser.
Planetary Resources is the latest brainchild of Eric Anderson, whose company Space Adventures has helped millionaires and billionaires go on 10-day trips to the International Space Station; and Peter Diamandis, the motive force behind the multimillion-dollar X Prize program, the Rocket Racing League and the Zero G Corp.'s weightless-airplane tourist venture. Anderson and Diamandis serve as co-chairmen of the venture they co-founded.
Diamandis said Planetary Resources follows up on discussions that he and Anderson had starting about three years ago — and also follows up on a nearly lifelong ambition he's had.
"As a teenager, when I was asked what I wanted to be, I'd say, 'An asteroid miner,'" Diamandis told me.
Why mine asteroids? Planetary Resources' ultimate goal is to set up a commercial infrastructure for fueling trips far beyond Earth orbit, with Planetary Resources controlling the equivalent of oil wells, refineries and filling stations in outer space. That's the long-term promise of near-Earth asteroids.