Wednesday, April 25, 2012

A group of high-tech tycoons want to mine nearby asteroids, hoping to turn science fiction into real profits. 

The mega-million dollar plan is to use commercially built robotic ships to squeeze rocket fuel and valuable minerals like platinum and gold out of the lifeless rocks that routinely whiz by Earth. 

One of the company founders predicts that they could have their version of a spacebased gas station up and running by 2020. 

The inaugural step, to be achieved in the next 18 to 24 months, would be launching the first in a series of private telescopes that would search for rich asteroid targets. Several scientists not involved in the project said they were simultaneously thrilled and skeptical, calling the plan daring, difficult - and highly expensive. 

They struggle to see how it could be cost-effective , even with platinum and gold worth nearly $1,600 an ounce. An upcoming Nasa mission to return just 2 ounces (60g ) of an asteroid to Earth will cost about $1 billion. 

Investors and advisers to the new company, Planetary Resources Inc of Seattle, include Google CEO Larry Page and executive chairman Eric Schmidt and explorer and filmmaker James Cameron. 

The mining, fuel processing and later refueling would all be done without humans, Anderson said. 

"It is the stuff of science fiction, but like in so many other areas of science fiction, it's possible to begin the process of making them reality," said former astronaut Thomas Jones, an adviser to the company. The target-hunting telescopes would be tubes only a couple of feet long, weighing only a few dozen pounds and small enough to be held in your hand. They should cost less than $10 million, company officials said. 

The idea that asteroids could be mined for resources has been around for years.