Bellevue-based company Planetary Resources detailed plans Tuesday to head to near space to mine asteroids for natural resources that could be used on Earth and used to further exploration into space.
Planetary Resources involves ex-NASA and ex- employees, as well as a star-studded slate of investors and advisers, including Google's Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, filmmaker James Cameron and Microsoft's former Chief Software Architect Charles Simonyi, who has traveled to space as a tourist aboard Russian Soyuz crafts.
Simonyi, an investor in Planetary Resources, likened the progress in aerospace technology to the time when entrepreneurs envisioned making computers household objects and computers took up half a room.
"How can you have something like that on every desk?" Simonyi asked rhetorically.
The materials that can be mined from asteroids include precious metals and water—which also has the components for fuel for rockets, and which could help expand the human presence in space, said Eric Anderson, co-founder and co-chairman of Planetary Resources Inc., at a news conference at the Museum of Flight in Seattle.
The raw materials could be worth trillions of dollars over the decades, he said.
"This is the engine that will extend our sphere of influence beyond the lower orbit," said Peter H. Diamandis, also co-founder and co-chairman of the company.
Anderson painted a picture of an asteroid mining system that could serve as "gas stations" for NASA and other space explorers, which would enable humans to explore farther into space.
The company's first step into space could be made within two years with the company's first line in its family of deep-space prospecting spacecraft, the Arkyd-100 Series, which will have a camera, communications systems, and data collection systems that will help the company develop future spacecraft and identify asteroids that have the right material to mine, said Chris Lewicki, president and chief engineer.
Key to the company's exploration and development strategy is to launch multiple spacecraft on missions, he said.
Raw materials could begin to be mined within 10 years, Diamandis said.
The first missions also will use robots, though human miners are expected to be employed in the future, he said.
Though the first Arkyd-100 spacecraft could launch within two years, it could take up to a decade to identify asteroids to mine, and to develop spacecraft that could start the process, Anderson said.
The company will build its spacecraft with a team of a few dozen engineers locally, Lewicki said.
The craft is designed to be launched as secondary payload on other missions, so it will not need its own rocket to launch into space, he said.
Anderson and Simonyi acknowledged the risk of the venture.
"There is a significant possibility that we might fail," Anderson said. But, he said that the company and its investors "believe that moving the needle for space is worth it."
Simonyi said that while he believes in his investment in the company, if someone mortgaged their home to invest in space exploration, he would encourage them not to because of the risk.
He said such a venture is appropriate for private investors, rather than NASA, which faces public and political pressure to be productive.
Though the company was started in 2009, the founders said that they made an announcement now because they are recruiting the best aerospace engineers and scientists for positions at Planetary Resources.
Planetary Resources says that viewers will be able watch the archived video of the press conference in the .
Dozens of media turned out for the event, including The Economist, Wired and more.