Thursday, December 27, 2012

Asteroid Mining: "A Start-Up Sees a Gold Rush Among the Stars"

Why do I think of crony billionaires hustling subsidies to bring back expensive-but-not-really-rare elements?
From the New York Times, Dec. 24, 2012:
BELLEVUE, Wash. — The job description and title, “Chief Asteroid Miner,” are not what you are likely to come across on a job-search Web site. Besides, the position is taken. Chris Lewicki, the president of Planetary Resources, a company based in this city just east of Seattle, has it on his business cards.

“It’s certainly an audacious thing that we’re after,” said Mr. Lewicki, 38. 

Lots of small start-up companies have stars in their eyes, captivated by entrepreneurial dreams — some half-baked, some brilliant, often a bit of both — of global success and riches. Here, at least the part about the stars is literal. 

In an otherwise unremarkable low-rise office park, with the Bread of Life Christian Church and a gym as neighbors, Mr. Lewicki and about 30 employees are aiming beyond Earth for the next great gold rush. (They are actually after the platinum group of metals, which dwarf gold in value and rarity.) 

They are planning, within a decade or so, an unmanned robotic mining mission to the asteroid belt.
The idea is not new. Space exploration enthusiasts have talked about harvesting the ancient, mineral-laden chunks of rock that hurtle through interplanetary space since at least the 1920s. A decade ago, in the frothy go-go era before the recession, an asteroid mining company was started and sold shares to the public before crashing to earth and going out of business. 

What is new is the money and backing from people with global reputations who have said they think Planetary Resources has the right stuff. The company, quietly founded in 2010 and rarely seeking any attention until recently, has the filmmaker James Cameron as an adviser. Larry Page and Eric E. Schmidt, top executives at Google, are among the investors. 

Of course, as millions of moviegoers know, resource extraction efforts ended in tears for the miners in Mr. Cameron’s space epic “Avatar.” Those miners sought something called unobtanium, whatever that was, on a faraway moon. Mr. Cameron did not respond to e-mailed questions or repeated requests for an interview.
But company leaders at Planetary Resources said in an interview that their business model would be based on the journey itself. Creating a company that could one day launch ships into the unknown darkness of space, and, rather like the shipping magnates of sailing and whaling days past, wait years for a booty-laden return means selling space technology along the way — much of which will have to be invented — to help finance the dream. 

The company is developing its own orbital telescope, for example, geared to survey remote asteroids to figure out what they are made of, with a planned launching within two years. But it also plans to produce the devices commercially, with a price in the single-digit millions, for corporations, governments or individuals. The idea, company officials said, is to finance finding and mining asteroids by selling, in a sense, the shovels and picks....MORE 

April 22, 2012
Feb 6, 2012
Oct. 21, 2011
We've been following these plans at a distance, so to speak.