A Gold Rush in Outer Space?

Thursday, 21 Feb 2013 09:04 AM

By John Morgan

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Asteroids that threaten the Earth are hogging public attention these days, but the ones that stay in space may represent immense treasure chests of platinum, gold and other precious resources, according to NBC News.

Instead of prospective calamity, a near-Earth asteroid represents financial opportunity, one of the founders of Planetary Resources Inc. said.

“A single 500-meter (asteroid) has more platinum on it than has been mined in the history of humanity,” said Peter Diamandis, co-founder and co-chairman of the Seattle-based space exploration company.

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Planetary Resources’ scheme is to develop robotic spacecraft to analyze and mine asteroids. The spacecraft would remain in Earth’s orbit during the analysis stage, dock with asteroids that show the right promise, then extract the desired materials and return to Earth with the cargo.

The company’s first mission will take place in 20 months, and its first mining expedition will occur within five years, Diamandis told NBC News.

His company has some marquee backers, including Larry Page and Eric Schmidt of Google and movie director James Cameron.

Planetary Resources already has defense contracts and NASA contracts, Diamandis said.

The company also hopes to develop the capability to defend the Earth from meteors such as the one that struck Russia last week, injuring about 1,000 people.

“Of the millions of asteroids out there orbiting the sun, some small percentage actually comes close to the Earth,” said Diamandis. “If you develop asteroid mining capability, you can alter their trajectory and deflect these asteroids almost for free. It’s a side benefit.”

Separately, GlobalPost reported NASA will invest $5 million in a system to detect dangerous space rocks that are shooting toward Earth.

The so-called ATLAS system to detect potential meteorite collisions with Earth is expected to be operational by 2015.

“It’s going to involve small telescopes about the size of a good garbage can, but very wide fields of view and the intent is to basically scan the whole sky a couple times a night,” said John Tonry, a professor at the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy.

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