Chris Lewiki of Planetary Resources introduces the Arkyd 102 mini-satellite. PR plans to launch a swarm of these low-cost telescope satellites in the 2014-2015 timeframe, both to identify the size and location of near-Earth asteroids in order to calculate their orbits, and to use light spectra to determine those asteroid's composition. These low-Earth orbit satellite telescopes are also capable of Earth observation. The data they gather can be sold to universities, businesses, and government - all part of PR's short-term business model in addition to their more well-known long-term asteroid mining plans.
Planetary Resources introductory promotional video below. Obviously there are lots of technical hurdles (as well as financial ones), but this is great stuff.
I wasn't sure until their announcement, but it seems that this endeavor will be solely robotic in nature. (In the Q&A, they did say they may collaborate with NASA on future manned asteroid missions. Indeed, the entire venture is proposed as a public/private partnership.) But if they are successful, Planetary Resources will establish the infrastructure that will enable a fuel depot strategy for human exploration of points beyond. Getting whatever metals they may be able to produce for the Earth market will be very costly to return given current technology. Billions of $$$ of platinum metals back on Earth would be phase two (and tricky). Harvesting water, electrolzying that into hydrogen and oxygen to create fuel depots is highly likely to be the major part of PR's initial phase of their business model. PR would be able to provide gas and water to NASA and others in cislunar space, and human spaceflight will become vastly more economic.
An impressive group of entrepreneurs and investors led by Peter Diamandis and Eric Anderson and including Google's Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, director James Cameron, Charles Simonyi, and Ross Perot Jr. will hold a press conference next week to announce a new extraterrestrial mining venture called Planetary Resources, Inc. The presser will be on April 24 at Seattle's Museum of Flight.
The Planetary Resources press release says that
the company will overlay two critical sectors – space exploration and natural resources – to add trillions of dollars to the global GDP. This innovative start-up will create a new industry and a new definition of ‘natural resources’.
If successful, the venture would extend the Earth's econosphere beyond geosynchronous orbit into cislunar, lunar, and deep space. Technology Review speculates that this endeavor
...sounds like asteroid mining. Because what else is there in space that we need here on earth? Certainly not a livable climate or a replacement for our dwindling supplies of oil.
Peter Diamandis gave a TED talk in 2005 on the desire for wealth being the next great motivation for space exploration. He specifically mentions asteroid mining and notes that "everything we hold of value on this planet — metal and minerals and real estate and energy" are available in "infinite quantities" in space.
My plan is to actually buy puts on the precious metal market, and then actually claim that I'm going to go out and get one. And that will fund the actual mission to go and get one.
Nickle-iron resources would certainly imply asteroids, but he also makes a slightly tongue in cheek reference to wanting to "make a beeline for the moon and grab some lunar real estate". So pace Tech Review's comment, that could mean helium-3 (fusion energy) or platinum group metals (hydrogen energy). Or eventually some combination of those.
Note however that the technical challenges of mining an asteroid are very high. The very low gravity conditions are riskier and require untested methods than similar kinds of proposed mining endeavors on the moon. We've been to the moon, it has gravity. We haven't been to an asteroid, and stuff floats around. At the ILRP Summit Meeting last year I had a conversation with someone from NASA Ames about a proposed concept to essentially put a big bag bubble over a small asteroid to allow processing its minerals without stuff flying off and becoming a hazard to the spacecraft. Mining the moon would seem much more feasible in the medium term, although an asteroid would largely avoid the international kerfluffle that is likely to surround a property/resource claim on the moon.
My first take is that asteroids are still NASA-level stuff, but A. I would love to be wrong or B. perhaps they're envisioning this as some sort of NASA-private partnership. We shall see. But what a fascinating and unexpected announcement. Given the caliber of the individuals involved in this venture, this is exciting stuff. Tickets are available, and I will be there at the streaming.