Forget Earth. Let's mine space.
There are a lot of rocks floating around out there beyond our planet's confines, and the thinking of a smart, connected and very rich group of investors is that the time is right to search for resources somewhere besides the ground we call home.
A company called Planetary Resources -- started three years ago, but only now unveiling its plans -- is spearheading an effort to start mining near-Earth asteroids for human-friendly materials, specifically water and platinum-group metals. Sound a little wacky, at best? Maybe reminds you of "Alien" or "Outland" or some other good-intentions-go-bad in outer space tale?
Skepticism is never an awful approach, but the people attached to the project and the investors in it are telling a pretty serious story. A number of Planetary Resources executives, including Eric Anderson and Peter Diamandis, of X Prize Foundation fame, held a press conference at The Museum of Flight in Seattle on Tuesday to discuss the company and its goals.
Diamandis said the primary purpose was to "make the resources of space available to humanity," both outside of and on Earth. "It can be done, and yes, it's very difficult," but the returns "are extraordinary," he said.
While the project sounds very much like any number of science fiction stories, it has attracted the interest of rather serious brain power and financial means. Among those involved are Google's (GOOG) Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, Ross Perot Jr., former Microsoft (MSFT) software architect Charles Simonyi and movie director turned submarine adventurer James Cameron. The chief engineer of Planetary Resources is a former manager at NASA's well-known Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and a host of other engineers and even former astronauts are involved.
Anderson said at the conference that the rationale for initially seeking water on the asteroids will be first because it can support life, and second because its components, hydrogen and oxygen, are key propellants for rocket launches. The thinking there would be to use asteroids as a type of gas station or launch pad for deep space missions. The platinum metals, meanwhile, are being sought because they're rare on our planet, and therefore expensive, but they're vital for a range of industrial applications.
"We're going to bring the solar system within our economic sphere of influence," Anderson said.
Planetary Resources is envisioning a three-phase process over the next few years. The first is to fully develop its technology, with the hope of launching its early equipment within 24 months. The next step will involve figuring out which asteroids are the best targets for mining, and that will be followed by extraction.
The group's speakers acknowledged the high risks and the potential for failure of the undertaking, but indicated they believe it's worth it. Ahead of the press conference, a report in The New York Times quoted Anderson as saying the "collective net worth" of Planetary Resources' investors is around $50 billion, "and they know what they're getting into." When asked, he declined to give details on Planetary Resources' fundraising totals.
Investors in the project and the company's employees clearly have a sense of adventure, and at the conference several of them invoked the wonders of space and compared their efforts to the early days of the personal computer and the Internet. But there is absolutely a profit motive -- Anderson made it clear that if the effort is ultimately successful, the financial payoff could be enormous.
How enormous? Planetary Resources believes its work will have the ability to "add trillions of dollars to the global GDP," according to a Wall Street Journal article. Trillions. For reference, the U.S. economy is worth, in total, about $14 trillion to $15 trillion right now.
So here's something for skeptics and space junkies alike to keep an eye on.
Could this be the beginning of a new, commercial space race? Would you invest in a space-mining operation if you could? Tell us what you think.