A start-up sees a gold rush among the stars

Top Google executives Larry Page and Eric Schmidt are among the investors in the company
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First Published: Tue, Dec 25 2012. 10 40 PM IST
An April photo of Planetary Resources co-founder and co-chairman Eric Anderson, second from left, during a press conference in Seattle, US.
An April photo of Planetary Resources co-founder and co-chairman Eric Anderson, second from left, during a press conference in Seattle, US.
Washington: The job description and title, “chief asteroid miner”, are not what you are likely to come across on a job-search website. 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 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 neighbours, 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 filmmaker James Cameron as an adviser. Larry Page and Eric E. Schmidt, top executives at Google Inc., are among the investors.
Of course, as millions of moviegoers know, resource extraction efforts ended in tears for the miners in Cameron's space epic Avatar. Those miners sought something called unobtanium, whatever that was, on a faraway moon. Cameron did not respond to emailed 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.
“The engineering in many cases has been solved,” said Lewicki, who spent 10 years at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory before joining Planetary Resources. “What will settle the winners from the laggards will be who can find the best economic model.”
The economics of space, said Eric Anderson, a founder of the company, also look increasingly different as the costs and complications of resource extraction here on Earth have soared. Getting deep-sea oil off the coast of Brazil, for example, is expected to cost billions before the first barrel is pumped, he said, which makes the “single-digit billions”, which Anderson estimates his company will ultimately need to launch a prospecting ship and return within the next decade, a much less daunting number.
“These are on the scale of the kind of resource dollars that get spent on Earth to bring something on line,” he said. “The private equity markets are used to that.”
People here are very excited about water, too. Recently published discoveries that water is more prevalent in the nearby universe than previously believed have become part of the plan here, because water can be distilled to hydrogen, allowing—at least in theory—an asteroid ship to travel light, making its own fuel on site for the return trip. Water has been found even on Mercury, locked in ice on the poles of the hottest planet in the solar system, nearest the sun.
“It’s a really interesting mixture of the highly technical and highly primitive,” said Mark V. Sykes, the chief executive and director of the Planetary Science Institute, a 40-year-old private non-profit research organization based in Tucson, Arizona.
Sykes described how a spacecraft might dock on an asteroid with sophisticated technology and then use simple concentrated sunlight to make fuel for the long slow voyage home, perhaps by solar sail.
But while some scientists like Sykes, who has advised Planetary Resources on asteroid science, said they thought the company could indeed one day go where no mining company has gone before, sceptics said they thought the timeline for making a trip out and back, with something to sell at the end, could be far longer and more expensive than company officials thought.
“They look like rocks, like you could reach out and break off a piece, but they are almost certainly rubble piles,” said Erik Asphaug, a professor of planetary science at Arizona State University who studies asteroids.
With unstable, unconsolidated interiors and no gravity to speak of in most nearby asteroids, many of which are about the size of a city block, a ship would not be able to land at all in a traditional sense but instead would have to dock as though with a space station and then lock itself onto the asteroid to keep from bouncing back into space. The details are devilish and could take decades, in his opinion, if not a century, to solve.
Then there is the question of saving us from the Big One.
Relatively little money is being spent now on developing tools that could avert or destroy a large asteroid discovered to be on a collision course with Earth, Asphaug said. But if one day a threat were to emerge, he added, the company or companies that know most about asteroids could suddenly be quite popular with the world's governments —not for riches, but rescue. ©2012/THE NEW YORK TIMES
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First Published: Tue, Dec 25 2012. 10 40 PM IST
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