Elaine Thompson, Associated Press
SEATTLE — Using space-faring robots to mine precious metals from asteroids almost sounds easy when former astronaut Tom Jones describes it — practically like clearing a snow-covered driveway.
Jones, an adviser to a bold venture that aims to extract gold, platinum and rocket fuel from the barren space rocks, said many near-Earth asteroids have a loose rocky surface held together only weakly by gravity.
"It shouldn't be too hard to invent a machine like a snow blower to pick up material," explained Jones, a veteran of four space shuttle missions.
But it will be risky and monstrously expensive, which is why some of the biggest and richest names in high-technology — including the barons of Google and filmmaker James Cameron — are behind the project.
If the plan gets off the ground as planned, robots could be extracting cosmic riches within 10 years.
Outside experts are skeptical because the program would probably require untold millions or perhaps billions of dollars, plus huge advances in technology. Yet the same entrepreneurs behind this idea also pioneered the selling of space rides to tourists — a notion that seemed fanciful not long ago.
"Since my early teenage years, I've wanted to be an asteroid miner. I always viewed it as a glamorous vision of where we could go," Peter Diamandis, one of the founders of Planetary Resources Inc., told a news conference Tuesday at the Museum of Flight in Seattle. The company's vision "is to make the resources of space available to humanity."
The inaugural step, to be achieved in the next 18 to 24 months, would be launching the first in a series of private telescopes that would search for the right type of asteroids.
The proposal is to use commercially built robotic ships to squeeze rocket fuel and valuable minerals out of the rocks that routinely whiz by Earth.
Several scientists not involved in the project said they were simultaneously thrilled and wary, calling the plan daring, difficult — and pricey. They don't see how it could be cost-effective, even with platinum and gold worth nearly $1,600 an ounce. An upcoming NASA mission to return just 2 ounces (60 grams) of an asteroid to Earth will cost about $1 billion.
The entrepreneurs of Planetary Resources have a track record of profiting from space ventures. Diamandis and co-founder Eric Anderson led the way in selling space rides to tourists, and Diamandis has a separate company that offers "weightless" airplane flights.
Investors and advisers to the new company include Google CEO Larry Page, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and Cameron, the man behind the Hollywood blockbusters "Titanic" and "Avatar."
Extracting water is key to deep space exploration, as well as for driving costs down, Anderson said. The water can be converted into fuel by separating the hydrogen and oxygen. On a manned flight, it could also be used for drinking and growing food.
The plan is to take water from an asteroid to a spot in space where it can be broken down into fuel. From there, it can easily and cheaply be shipped to Earth orbit for refueling commercial satellites or spaceships from NASA and other countries.
Anderson acknowledged the many potential pitfalls.
"There will be times when we fail," he said. "There will be times when we have to pick up the pieces and try again."
The mining, fuel processing and later refueling would all be done without humans, Anderson said.
The target-hunting telescopes would be tubes only a couple of feet long, weighing only a few dozen pounds and small enough to be held in your hand. They should cost less than $10 million, company officials said.
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