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Asteroid mining: Is there money to be made in space?
James Cameron, Google's top brass, and Ross Perot's son are betting big that there's platinum in the heavens. Are they delusional or brilliant?
Artist's conception of an asteroid belt: A new company is looking to space for the next big source of natural resources.
Artist's conception of an asteroid belt: A new company is looking to space for the next big source of natural resources.
NASA/JPL-Caltech
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n intriguing new company called Planetary Resources Inc. has some questions to answer at its public unveiling on Tuesday, not least of which is: What does the firm do, anyway? Given its somewhat cryptic pledge to "overlay two critical sectors — space exploration and natural resources," most are assuming that the company hopes to pioneer the field of mining asteroids for metals and minerals. If that sounds like a ridiculous "page out of a sci-fi novel or a Hollywood movie scene," says Amir Efrati in The Wall Street Journal, Planetary Resources boasts enough space experts and deep-pocketed backers to be taken quite seriously. Are we really on the cusp of asteroid mining? Here's what you should know:

What do we know about Planetary Resources?
It was founded by noted space-exploration entrepreneurs Peter Diamandis, the man behind the Ansari X-Prize spacecraft competition, and Eric Anderson, a co-founder of space-travel broker Space Adventures. Former NASA Mars program mission manager Chris Lewicki is president and chief engineer, and the company's "investor and adviser group" includes heavy hitters like film director James Cameron, Google's Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, former Microsoft executive Charles Simonyi, and Ross Perot Jr., the son of the billionaire 1992 presidential candidate. A press release pledges to "create a new industry and a new definition of 'natural resources'" and "help ensure humanity's prosperity." 

Why is everyone guessing asteroid mining?
Aside from the clues in the press release, Diamandis is an unabashed advocate of mining asteroids. "Since my childhood, I've wanted to do one thing: Be an asteroid miner," he told Forbes earlier this month. "I believe that opening up the resources of space for the benefit of humanity is critical," and will probably lead to an asteroid "land rush."

How would it work?
The most plausible scenarios involve either sending humans up to near-Earth asteroids with mining equipment or sending robotic spacecraft to either mine an asteroid or bring it closer to Earth, probably in orbit around the moon, so humans could reach it more easily. NASA just released a study on the feasibility of asteroid mining, and the agency plans to send up its own unmanned asteroid lander in 2016, with a return date of 2023. NASA is hoping this goes better than Japan's attempt: In 2005, Japan sent a mission to a near-Earth asteroid, but both the roving mini-lander and sample-collection arm failed, and the probe returned empty-handed in 2010.

What would we mine?
The expected bounty includes metals like nickel and iron, and even resources like water, oxygen, and various metals that could be used by spacecraft en route to more-distant spots in the galaxy. A nonprofit called Space Wealth suggests that it could be cost-effective to bring back metals in the platinum group, which are dwindling on Earth, for hydrogen fuel cells and catalytic converters.

How much would this cost?
NASA estimated that, for a cool $2.6 billion, somebody could send a solar-powered spacecraft to fetch a 500-ton, 23-foot-wide asteroid and bring it into orbit around the moon. That price tag doesn't include the likely billions more it would take to actually mine the asteroid, though.

How could this possibly be cost effective?
No one seems to have figured that out... yet. In its mysterious press release, Planetary Resources says it will "add trillions of dollars to the global GDP." If that's true, "the return on investment could be amazing," says Gizmodo's Jesus Diaz. And remember, Space Wealth estimates that one asteroid could reap more than $1 billion worth of platinum alone. Well, while the pros figure it out, says Theresa Seiger at CBS News, the rest of us can continue to "wait for our flying cars and jetpacks."

Sources: CNET News, Gizmodo, InformationWeek, PC Magazine, Raycom News, USA Today, Wall Street Journal

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