Gold is trading at about $1600 an ounce today, nickel roughly $17600 per tonne and copper about $8300 a tonne. Why? Because they’re scarce resources in high demand.
But a business initiative launched this week is aiming to change all that. Not the economics of it, the scarcity. US space start-up Planetary Resourcesis going to take a pick and shovel to space and mine asteroids.
"Many of the scarce metals and minerals on Earth are in near-infinite quantities in space.
As access to these materials increases, not only will the cost of everything from microelectronics to energy storage be reduced, but new applications for these abundant elements will result in important and novel applications," says Peter Diamandis, Co-Founder Planetary Resources.
To give an idea of what Diamandis means by ‘near-infinite quantities’, let’s take 16 Psyche, one of the ten most massive asteroids in the asteroid belt. Measuring over 200km in diameter, it’s estimated to hold over 170 million trillion tons of iron-nickel, or enough to supply our global needs for a millennia. Heaps, basically.
And it’s not just metals out there either. Others are loaded with carbon-rich compounds and some flush with water. While not every asteroid's a winner, there are a whole lot of good ones in the infinity of space that are chock full of stuff we’re running short on here on Earth.
To get at it the company will design a fleet of small asteroid prospecting spacecraft that will hitch a ride into space on commercial rockets. The spacecraft will then cruise around identifying the best asteroids to mine.
The company says the first launch will be within two years, before taking as long as ten years to identify the first asteroid to be mined, so there’s still a bit of time to sell your shares in old fashioned earthly resource companies.
But don’t be fooled by the lofty goals and seemingly long time frames, these guys are serious.
“This company is not about thinking and dreaming about asteroid mining,” Co-Founder Eric Anderson says. “It’s about building real hardware. It’s about doing real things in space.”
“We’re now going to bring the solar system to within our economic sphere of influence.”
And who’s footing the bill for all this? So far on the investor register are the who’s who of Google, including co-founder Larry Page, Chairman Eric Schmidt and investor K. Ram Shriram. Advisors to the company include filmmaker and explorer James Cameron and former NASA astronaut Tom Jones.
These are big cheeses backing the next big thing.
"Capital has always been the scarcest part of space exploration and this changes the equation and allows us to go much faster and much farther than before." Diamandis says.
The only speed bump in the process, apart from the whole flying into space and mining asteroids thing, is the politics of it all. Is it first in, best dressed out there? There’s sure to be some disputes over who all the resources belong to.
Also, feathers are sure to be ruffled if the company hauls in gold or copper by the tonne. Suddenly economies built around a particular resource will be decimated as it all becomes near worthless when the stuff is trucked in from space.
But they’re bridges to cross later. For now Planetary Resources is an exciting venture pushing the limits of our economic sphere.
"There's a rising tide going on in commercial space exploration. There are extraordinary investors willing to invest in launch technologies, lunar missions, asteroid missions," Diamandis says.
"This will be a seminal event in entrepreneurial space and moving off the planet."