A company based in the northwestern United States called Planetary Resources says it plans to mine near-Earth asteroids for raw materials, ranging from water to precious metals.
Planetary Resources' co-founder Peter Diamandis is an entrepreneur, best-selling author, medical doctor and CEO of the X Prize Foundation. Speaking at a news conference at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, Washington, Diamandis said he has wanted to be an asteroid miner since he was a teenager.
"The vision of Planetary Resources is to make the resources of space available to humanity, both in space and here on Earth, whether it's propellent from water on asteroids or strategic metals and minerals that are important to promoting and creating a world of abundance here on Earth," said Diamandis.
Company officials say resource extraction from asteroids will grow to be valued at tens of billions of dollars annually, but they stress that that kind of payday is decades away. They add that asteroid mining will provide a sustainable supply of precious metals to Earth's growing population.
Along with Diamandis, Eric Anderson is the co-founder and co-chairman of Planetary Resources. While precious metal such as platinum would be welcome, Anderson says they also want to mine for elements found in abundance here on Earth - namely hydrogen and oxygen, which are the basis for water...and rocket fuel.
"If we're able to successfully, successfully deploy and mine for water, we're going to create a network of propellant depots, of gas stations, that literally open up the roadways to the rest of the solar system," said Anderson. "So it's going to drastically reduce the cost of deep space exploration."
Planetary Resources says it has developed the first line in a family of deep-space prospecting spacecraft, the Arkyd-100 Series. The craft is essentially a space telescope that will help scientists identify and prioritize near-Earth asteroid targets.
The company says this spacecraft will be launched in about two years. Beyond that, officials said the plan is to mass produce follow-on Arkyd-300 series spacecraft and send them off in swarms on expeditions. Planetary Resources says its mining would be done robotically.
Officials say they hope to identify asteroids to prospect within the decade.
The company's financial backers include billionaires such as Google's CEO Larry Page and Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt.
Planetary Resources counts famed film director and deep-sea explorer James Cameron as a project advisor, but some news reports have identified him as a financial backer. Cameron told VOA that his involvement in this project has been overstated in media reports.
"I'm not an investor in that," said Cameron. "I'm on the advisory board because I'm interested in lots of projects with respect to entrepreneurial space, as well as space, science and research."
Cameron, who is visiting China for the Beijing International Film Festival, told VOA's Beijing bureau chief that as he left a party a few days ago, he was asked if he would be on the advisory board. He said he answered "sure" as he walked out the door and that is "the sum total" of his involvement to date.
Still, Cameron says, mining asteroids is a great idea.
"We're going to be a resource-depleted planet that's going to be voracious for metals and rare earth minerals and things like that, which we can harvest from within the solar system. And there's logic to getting them from asteroids because you don't have to lift them out of a gravity well - like, mining on Mars doesn't make sense, mining on the moon makes very little sense, because you have to lift everything out of a gravity well to get it to Earth. But anyway, that's something that I'm only a tiny part of," he said.
Officials at Planetary Resources say near-Earth asteroids could be reached with little propulsion, and it would be relatively easy to depart from them because of their very small gravity fields.
They also say that private industry can take more risks, work at a faster pace and tolerate high-cost failures in a way that governments cannot.