Google CEOs to Search Asteroids for Resources

Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and current Google CEO (and co-founder) Larry Page are investing part of their considerable fortunes into a search operation of a very different sort. Named Planetary Resources, the new company hopes to find something worth mining on our solar system’s asteroids.

The press release from Planetary Resources includes an impressive list of investors and advisors. In addition to Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, film maker James Cameron (of Avatar fame) is involved; so is Ross Perot, Jr., son of the former presidential candidate and chairman of The Perot Group. Peter H. Diamandis, one of the leading lights behind the Ansari X-Prize competition encouraging non-governmental  space flight, is also part of this venture. So is Eric Anderson, an aerospace engineer and philanthropist long involved in a variety of efforts encouraging commercial spaceflight, including the X-Prize.

You’ll also find veterans of the US space program involved, such as former NASA Mars mission manager Chris Lewicki and planetary scientist Tom Jones, who is also a veteran NASA astronaut. Microsoft’s former Chief Software Architect, Charles Simonyi, is involved as well – which should come as no surprise, since he’s been to space twice already.

The company will hold a news conference on Tuesday, April 24, at 10:30 AM PDT in the Charles Simonyi Space Gallery of the Museum of Flight in Seattle. Planetary Resources says that it “will overlay two critical sectors – space exploration and natural resources – to add trillions of dollars to the global GDP. This innovative start-up will create a new industry and a new definition of ‘natural resources.’” Judging from statements made by some of Planetary Resources’ advisors and board members in different contexts, this new industry could be nothing short of asteroid mining.

Is this more than just pie in the sky? That’s hard to say. The Wall Street Journal cited a study completed in March by NASA scientists that examined the feasibility of asteroid mining. It concluded that, “for a cost of $2.6 billion, humans could use robotic spacecraft to capture a 500-ton asteroid seven meters in diameter and bring it into orbit around the moon so that it could be explored and mined.” That’s a longer-term goal than most companies envision, however: the flight itself would take six to 10 years, and NASA believed that we’d be able to do this by about 2025. Oh, and that $2.6 billion price tag? It doesn’t include the cost of actually extracting anything from the asteroid.

The WSJ noted that Louis Friedman, a former NASA aerospace engineer who was involved in the study, notes that Planetary Resources faces certain obstacles if they plan to use this approach. First of all, getting started alone would take “hundreds of millions of dollars” and the company would “need to find a lower cost way to access space.” But the bigger problem, once you get the asteroid where you want it, is getting mining supplies up to it, and mined resources down from it. It may not be a big deal to do this from the moon, but if you plan to use the resources on Earth, you need to deal with going into and leaving Earth’s gravity well – and that’s expensive.

Friedman concluded that the materials obtained from asteroid mining in this fashion would only be useful in space. On the other hand, there’s much to be learned scientifically just from making the attempt, and members of Planetary Resources’ board are not strangers to organizations dedicated to science. Simonyi, for example, contributed $100 million to the Institute for Advanced Study, an organization dedicated to “fostering fundamental research that advances our understanding of the world.” And on a lighter note, one of Google’s more famous April Fool’s jokes had them setting up an office on the moon, and accepting applications for engineers and other workers at the soon-to-be-built campus. Maybe Planetary Resources really does intend to use the resources they gain from asteroid mining in space – to help create our first space colonies. 

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