Asteroid mining has more billionaires on board

LONDON — Planetary Resources, an asteroid-mining venture backed by Google executives, says it has added more billionaire investors and is nearing a partnership agreement with a “top-10” mining company.

Planetary Resources has “new billionaires to add to the list we’ve announced,” co-founder Eric Anderson said in a telephone interview, declining to identify them. “There are a number of other people you know who’ve decided to come on board as investors. We’ve got a lot of people who are committed to the long-term cause.”

The venture said in April it has the backing of Ross Perot Jr.; Google Chief Executive Officer Larry Page and the company’s chairman, Eric Schmidt ; and former Goldman Sachs Group Co-Chairman John C. Whitehead. The company aims to be the first to harness potentially trillions of dollars of minerals including platinum group metals by using robotic technology to mine asteroids.

“If their step-by-step road map goes to plan, I think it could be quite promising in the longer term,” Ben Taylor, a research fellow in the planetary environments team at the University of Surrey in Guildford, England, said by phone. “We can identify the minerals on the asteroids from orbital surveying, but it becomes a question of whether it’s still going to be cheaper to extract the very small amount that’s on Earth compared to the cost of extraction on an asteroid.”

While Planetary Resources has “enough funding for several years of operations” including its initial prospecting missions, the Seattle-based company would consider an initial public offering for future financing needs, Anderson said.

“I would love to take the company public someday,” he said. “I think it’s really important for the public to have a chance to be part of this, but not until we’re ready. We need to fly to space first.”

Planetary Resources intends to launch a telescopic space surveyor into Earth’s low orbit in less than two years to identify potential metal- and water-rich asteroids and begin prospecting within four years.

Platinum deposits on Earth originated on asteroids that collided with the planet and a single metallic asteroid with a 500-meter diameter likely contains more than all that’s been extracted on Earth, according to Planetary Resources.

There are currently 10,000 known so-called near-Earth asteroids and 1,500 of those are “energetically as easy to reach as the Moon,” according to the company’s website.

It signed an agreement with Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic last month enabling its Arkyd-100 low-Earth orbit space telescopes to be launched via Virgin spacecraft. The company hopes to sign an accord with a large mining company within months and is seeking to partner with more firms, Anderson said.

“We’re in discussions with a major mining company that is certainly one of the top 10 in the world,” he said, without naming the company. “It’s a very preliminary agreement that would give them rights to co-invest with us and profit from initial asteroid missions.”

Planetary Resources plans to identify water-rich asteroids, essential “stepping stones” that could be used for refueling rockets and explorers in future space adventures, Anderson said in an April interview.

Partnering with a mining company “should be very useful for them and obviously give them a lot more credibility in terms of this actually getting off the ground and working,” University of Surrey’s Taylor said. “They would obviously need to be careful that not too many existing processes which work on earth would be transferred to the space environment.”

Anderson said his company wanted the mining industry as a partner, not as a competitor. “We’re not planning to recreate the large mining companies of the world, we’re going to keep our expertise to the space part,” he said on Aug. 3.

Planetary Resources has assembled a team of about 40 engineers, including National Aeronautics and Space Administration veterans, to help advance its plan, Anderson said.

“We are very cognizant of the fact this is a very long- term project, we’re not going to be returning platinum group metals from asteroids tomorrow,” he said. “It’s going to take a while.”

It also lists film director and producer James Cameron as an adviser on its website. Google board member Kavitark Ram Shriram and International Software founder Charles Simonyi are also investors.

“Mining asteroids is clearly like eating a dinosaur. The way you eat a dinosaur is one bite at a time,” Anderson said. “We’re doing it one bite at a time.”

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