Mining for precious metals and resources is about to go where no man has gone before—space. No man except for Bruce Willis, that is. In the 1998 blockbuster film Armageddon, Willis and a group of blue-collar, deep-core drillers are sent on a mission to destroy an asteroid on a collision course with Earth. Today, the world is facing a whole new kind of Armageddon: energy is running out. The irony is that those civilization-destroying, near-earth objects that we've been taught to fear may actually play a vital role in our ability to survive in a world where energy demand exceeds supply.
While blowing things up always works in Hollywood, developments in the real world to, instead, exploit raw materials from Near-Earth Asteroids (NEAs) are gaining more attention. But how? Money had something to do with it. The world is no stranger to the widening gap between the rich and the poor, where the 1 percent will do next to anything to maintain ridiculous sums of wealth. But not all billionaires are as greedy and self-driven as the media makes them out to be. Even they know that their money will do them little good in world fallen to resource wars, blackouts and turmoil.
In fact, some of the world's richest men are taking matters into their own hands, with no help from governments or politicians. One part crazy, one part genius, those visionaries may just have enough bucks and clout to pull off next to anything.
Planetary Resources, a startup company with plans to mine NEAs, is being backed up by the likes of Director James Cameron, Google Executives Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, billionaire Ross Perot, X Prize Founder Peter H. Diamandis and Microsoft's Charles Simonyi. With that kind of financial power, the company may be able to accomplish ventures that restricted agencies and politically driven agendas never could.
"NASA is an agency to nowhere," said Dr. Michio Kaku, a well-known theoretical physicist, in an interview with ABC. "…we need private enterprise, especially people with deep pockets, to help jumpstart the program."
The company will be looking for two major things in space to add trillions of dollars to the global GDP: water and precious metals including platinum and palladium.
"Everything we hold of value on Earth -- metals, minerals, energy, water, real estate -- are literally in near-infinite quantities in space," says Diamandis.
And the economic appeal is just as great. Precious metals such as gold and platinum sell for around $50,000 per kilogram. By that standard, one small asteroid alone could be worth well around $30 billion.
In addition to the benefits the commercial dream to mine NEAs will bring to the resources sector, it will also serve as a renaissance in a wide range of sciences. Martin Elvis, an Astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian, argues that scientists should take the idea seriously for two main outcomes: the discovery of exotic new cosmic materials, and much cheaper space missions. Water found on the NEAs could be broken down into hydrogen for fuel and oxygen for breathing to extend future space travel—and fortunately, their low gravitational pull takes less fuel to land on than the moon. Asteroid material could also reveal things about Earth, such as why there are ores in Earth's crust and whether or not water in our oceans came from asteroids and comets that hit Earth soon after its crust had formed.
“To promote such research, NASA's new goal should not be exploration, but enablement of the commercial development of space resources,” writes Elvis in a column featured in Nature. “Exploration will follow naturally. And once profits from asteroid mining start to flow, scientific exploration will be the winner.”
When the company unveiled its plans to the public in late April, co-founder Eric Anderson said the idea would start small, using a telescope in Earth's orbit to look for the asteroids with the best mix of minerals. That launch is expected to occur sometime between 18 months to two years. Within just a few weeks of the announcement, Planetary Resources received thousands of job applications for engineers to help design and build a fleet of asteroid-mining robotic probes.
As we witness the beginnings of an entirely new industry, Planetary Resources is working assiduously to redefine the way the world views “natural resources.” For some of those resources, the commodities markets will be completely reshaped.
"If you believe it's important to have continued prosperity for future generations, we need resources from somewhere," said Anderson in an interview with ABC News. "Near-Earth asteroids are way, way more appealing than just about any other place we might look."