Tuesday, 24 April 2012 15:38
April 24, 2012
In yet another example of how entrepreneurs are helping fuel engineering research and development, a group of technology billionaires recently announced they would bankroll a project that aims to mine asteroids for precious metals and other minerals.
Google executives Larry Page and James Cameron, the director of "Avatar" and a thrill-seeking adventurer and science aficionado, are among the wealthy benefactors helping to fund the project, Reuters reports. The group hopes to survey and ultimately travel to asteroids that orbit the Earth as they endeavor to mine for precious metals and other materials that are exceedingly important in the production of myriad consumer products.
The wealthy donors have started a company, Planetary Resources, whose first goal is to develop inexpensive spacecraft that can travel to orbiting asteroids and survey them to see whether they contain any of the lucrative substances. The supply of rare earth metals on Earth, for instance, is almost entirely controlled by China, as other nations have scaled back production because of environmental concerns that accompany such mining.
Procuring rare earths in space, however, would help eliminate many of those worries, and it would open up another source for the valuable materials. Peter Diamandis and Eric Anderson, the co-founders of Bellevue, Washington-based Planetary Resources, said that a demonstration mission to space could be launched in as little as two years, underscoring how the company is hoping to significantly increase the speed at which such major scientific undertakings are completed.
The Associated Press reports that such a mission would include the launch of a series of telescopes that would search for asteroids that could potentially house rare earths and metals such as platinum and gold. News of the company's mission has invigorated the scientific community, although some researchers remain skeptical over whether such an ambitious project is feasible and cost-effective, according to the AP.
Still, Anderson and Diamandis have proven skeptics wrong in the past. The two were some of the first entrepreneurs to bet on space tourism, which is quickly becoming a popular industry. What's more, supporters said that myriad ideas in history have seemed too outlandish to succeed. Thomas Jones, an adviser to the company, told the AP that the project could help propel the private space exploration sector.
"It is the stuff of science fiction, but like in so many other areas of science fiction, it's possible to begin the process of making them reality," the former astronaut noted.
The telescopes the company plans to launch into space would measure only a few feet in length, and they would weigh only a couple of pounds, according to the company. They would also be inexpensive, as Planetary Resources hopes to engineer them for less than $10 million. Experts said ensuring the telescopes and spacecraft are cost-effective is essential to proving the viability of the asteroid mining project.
Planetary Resources is hoping to target asteroids that are free flying, according to Diamandis. NASA has also attempted to develop spacecraft capable of mining asteroids for metals and other substances, as the space agency has increasingly shifted its focus away from the Moon and planets in the Solar System and toward asteroids.
The company is hoping to develop a spacecraft capable of mining metals by 2020.