Today: Commercial Space Venture Sets Sights on Mining Asteroids for Minerals

Planetary Resources Inc.

Since the announcement last week that a team of high-profile backers–Eric Schmidt and Larry Page from Google, filmmaker James Cameron, Ross Perot Jr. (son of the former presidential candidate), space tourism pioneer Eric Anderson, and X-Prize founder Peter Diamandis, among others–is launching a company that will “overlay two critical sectors—space exploration and natural resources—to add trillions of dollars to the global GDP,” media speculation has generally centered on one thing: asteroid mining. And this morning, hours before the official press conference launching Planetary Resources Inc., that speculation appears to be confirmed.

At 1:30 p.m. EDT today, Planetary Resources will officially unveil its plans to use robotic spacecraft to exploit the mineral riches of the thousands of known near-earth objects passing through Earth’s neighborhood, as well as its intention to discover thousands more of them. The company reportedly hopes to establish not just a single mission but an entire framework for mining asteroids in space, including in-space “gas stations” that process water ice found on asteroids into hydrogen and oxygen for use in rocket fuels.

All of that will come further down the road, but the company has more immediate plans to begin putting enabling infrastructure into space. Any mining expedition begins with a period of prospecting, and the first phase of Planetary Resources’ project calls for the launch of inexpensive high-performance telescopes into low-earth orbit within the next two years to begin logging the locations and orbits of various asteroids hurtling through Earth’s neighborhood. These same telescopes will serve as testbeds for future instruments that will fly closer to asteroids to study their compositions in further detail.

After that, it’s a matter of identifying the right asteroid and building the spacecraft capable of moving it and mining it for both water and platinum group metals like palladium, iridium, and platinum itself. It’s a huge undertaking, but one that independent bodies like the Keck Institute for Space Studies have said is not unfeasible over the next decade or two, given the right blend of technology and financial backing.

We’ll be covering the press conference at 1:30 p.m. EDT and following it up with additional coverage here, so stay tuned.