Is Asteroid Mining the Next Gold Rush? Startup Planetary Resources Is Betting On It.

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
April 24 2012 3:10 PM

Is Asteroid Mining the Next Gold Rush? Startup Planetary Resources Is Betting On It.

After much buzz, the asteroid mining company Planetary Resources officially launched today with a press conference in Seattle. (That’s launched in the business sense, not the rocket sense—for now, at least.)

Torie Bosch Torie Bosch

Torie Bosch is the editor of Future Tense, a project of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State that looks at the implications of new technologies. 

The company eventually plans to use robots to extract water and minerals like gold and platinum from near-Earth asteroids (which Anderson tells Space.com “really are the low-hanging fruit of the solar system”). Finding water in space would be enormously beneficial to future exploration because it could be converted into rocket fuel, while the minerals could be sold here on Earth. But there’s some disagreement about how profitable the venture could be.

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The Associated Press reports:

Several scientists not involved in the project said they were simultaneously thrilled and skeptical, calling the plan daring, difficult — and highly expensive. They struggle to see how it could be cost-effective, even with platinum and gold worth nearly $1,600 an ounce. An upcoming NASA mission to return just 2 ounces (60 grams) of an asteroid to Earth will cost about $1 billion.

But in another report on Space.com, Jeremy Hsu disagrees, writing that the venture could be enormously profitable. “Just the mineral wealth of the asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter could be equivalent to about $100 billion for every person on Earth, according to ‘Mining the Sky: Untold Riches from the Asteroid, Comets, and Planets’ (Addison-Wesley, 1996) — perhaps slightly less now after accounting for the Earth's population growth over the past 15 years.” A graphic from Planetary Resources brags that asteroid mining is poised to become a trillion-dollar industry, while a company tweet says it’s “the modern gold rush."

Literal and figurative gold isn’t the only objective here. Planetary Resources was founded by Peter Diamandis of the X-Prize Foundation, along with aerospace engineer Eric Anderson. Its investors include Google CEO Larry Page and his predecessor Eric Schmidt, and Titanic and Avatar director James Cameron is on the advisory board. At Bad Astronomy, Phil Plait gives a thorough, highly readable account of the plan and concludes that Planetary Resources’ leadership “want[s] to make sure there are available resources in place to ensure a permanent future in space. And it’s not just physical resources with which they’re concerned. Their missions will support not just mining asteroids for volatiles and metals, but also to extend our understanding of asteroids and hopefully increase our ability to deflect one should it be headed our way.”

For more on how the asteroid mining process might work, see the Guardian's interactive.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

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