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Present at the Creation: Planetary Resources, the Silicon Valley of Space

April 25, 2012, 12:00 AM

While it has been the cause of significant buzz, relatively little has been known about the company Planetary Resources other than the names of its A-list founders and backers that include James Cameron, Google's Eric Schmidt, Sergey Brin and Larry Page and Peter Diamandis, founder of the X Prize. 

It's an impressive group, and that is why investor Ross Perot Jr. was not alone in his sentiment when he said "I believe in the team - betting on the jockey, not the horse."

Planetary Resources promises to be a fast horse as well. The company plans to send a fleet of droids to space to prospect the most valuable near-Earth asteroids. The project, which will require billions of investment dollars, could yield a trillion dollar reward, as precious metals exist in almost infinite quantities in space.

We learned a great deal more about the company yesterday at a public unveiling at the Museum of Flight in Seattle where the founders of Planetary Resources outlined their plan to "add tens of billions of dollars to the GDP annually."

"Since my early teenage years, I've wanted to be an asteroid miner," said founding member Peter Diamandis. "Now, the vision of my colleagues makes that dream not only a reality, but something we need to do." 

Here's what Planetary Resources has done, and what they plan to do down the road. 

The company has set up shop in Bellevue, WA, and currently employees two dozen engineers. "We're starting the Silicon Valley of space up here in Seattle," the founders announced. Indeed, part of the purpose of the public unveiling was to get the word out, as the company says it is looking to find "the world's best engineers."

"Not only can small groups of people change the world, it's the only thing that ever has."

If that statement has been true throughout history, Diamandis says a few important developments have enabled this specific innovation. These are:

  • Exponentially-growing technology is enabling small corporations using lower-cost robotics and spacecraft to do what only governments could do before. 
  • Commercial space flight has finally arrived
  • Risk-tolerant investors like Elon Musk and Richard Branson have been willing to invest in space. 

What this will enable Planetary Resources to do is "bring the solar system within our area of economic influence" said co-founder Eric Anderson. In other words, near-Earth asteroids in our solar system hold two enormously valuable resources in great abundance. These are: 

  • Water: H20 is for drinking, of course, but also for propulsion. This resource will allow Planetary Resources to drastically reduce the cost of space exploration and open up "space gas stations" to support mining missions that will open up the road to deep space exploration. 
  • Precious metals: Metals like platinum are useful in all sorts of industrial applications - from microelectronics to medical devices to catalytic converters. 

So the founders of Planetary Resources clearly have their eyes on the prize -- but which prize precisely remains the question. There are nearly 9,000 discovered near-Earth asteroids to choose from, which represent 1 percent of the asteroids we believe to exist. 

So the company plans to zero in on the specific asteroids they want to target, study the rotation rate, potential, and necessary support resources. 

While they aren't afraid to dream big, the founders of Planetary Resources admit there's "a significant probability that we could fail, but we believe that the attempt is worth it." Indeed, they plan to live and learn from their failures, said Chris Lewicki, President & Chief Engineer of Planetary Resources.

While the task is indeed difficult, the founders pointed out that companies like Shell and others have created "fully robotic cities on the bottom of the ocean to drill for oil. This looks easy by comparison." 

And what about the timeline? While the founders said "we come from the Burt Rutan school of not giving out timelines," Peter Diamandis did offer this explanation: "We aim to identify the first asteroids to prospect within the decade." 

Jason Gots contributed to this post. 

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Follow Daniel Honan on Twitter @Daniel Honan


Present at the Creation: Pl...

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