This story just smacks of so much "coolness" that I have to share it, and quickly. It seems that the dream of asteroid mining is about to get a major shot in the arm. A brand new company, called Planetary Resources, Inc., is dedicated to expanding Earth's resource base by exploring and exracting from non-Earth resources--translation, asteroid mining. And at 1:30 PM ET today, the firm is expected to announce to the world how they are going to do that.
A number of the firm's investors are notable for their entrepreneurship and interest in space, exploration, and research. Some also have previous involvement in space research. The known investor list includes Google co-founder and CEO Larry Page, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, and explorer and film-maker James Cameron.
The idea that asteroids could be mined for resources has been around for years. Asteroids can be thought of as the "leftovers" from the planet formation stage of our solar system. These chunks failed to successfully clump together with other chunks to make a planet. Most of these remnants became the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, but some pieces are occasionally pushed out to roam the solar system.
Asteroids are made mostly of rock and metal, and range from a few meters wide to nearly 10 miles across. Planetary Resources plans to target the asteroids that pass near Earth, called near-earth objects (NEOs). The company seeks to extract from these NEOs the rare earth metals that are used in such products as batteries, electronics and medical devices.
Water can be broken down in space to liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen for rocket fuel. But water is very expensive to launch into space, so the plan is to take it from an asteroid to a point in space where it can be converted into fuel. From there, it can easily and cheaply be shipped to Earth orbit to refuel commercial satellites or spaceships from NASA, ESA, and other countries.
There is no information yet on how much the project would cost, but company representatives have stated that Planetary Resources expected to build and launch quickly, and to operate much more cheaply than NASA.
The video announcement is being streamed over the Internet today at 1:30 PM ET. The announcement URL is: http://www.spacevidcast.com/live/
The home page of Planetary Resources, Inc. can be found here: http://www.planetaryresources.com/
To learn more about these potential targets of mining opportunity, the NEOs themselves, check out NASA's Near-Earth Object (NEO) Program. The program coordinates NASA-sponsored efforts to detect, track and characterize potentially hazardous asteroids and comets that could approach the Earth. http://neo.jpl.nasa.gov/