Space mining start-up Planetary Resources has announced that it has partnered with Virgin Galactic in the quest to explore asteroids for minerals.
Under the agreement announced late Wednesday, Virgin Galactic will launch Planetary Resources spacecraft into low Earth orbit, starting with the Arkyd-100 series of space telescopes. The telescopes will be launched on Virgin Galactic’s newly announced satellite launcher, the LauncherOne.
“As Planetary Resources works to expand humanity’s resource base, we also plan to increase scientific and commercial access to the Earth and deep space by developing capable and cost-efficient spacecraft,” said Chris Lewicki, President and Chief Engineer of Planetary Resources, Inc.
“Interest in using our Arkyd-100 Series for commercial purposes – in addition to finding asteroids – has been very strong,” he said.
Asteroids are rich in valuable minerals. An M-type asteroid, the third most common type, just one km diameter could contain more than two billion tons of iron ore and nickel. And, notes the company, they are not very far away.
"Actually, some near-Earth objects are the most accessible destinations in the Solar System. These are energetically closer to us then even the surface of the Moon and that’s because they have Earth-like orbits and they also have small gravity fields. So, we can reach them with very little propulsion," said the company.
Getting the ore from asteroid to the earth's surface is still a ways off, and the company is leveraging unnamed future technologies.
"The microgravity environment presents unique challenges for materials acquisition and processing that require a different way of thinking about the problem. Problems associated material transport and handling must be solved with a new set of tools."
In February this year, the heads of the world's five largest space agencies gathered in Canada to discuss interplanetary mining, particularly the viability of mining the Moon.
Several countries, including China, have already expressed an interest in mining the moon's resources and a number of prototype machines already exist.
Google co-founders have been known to take on big, outside-of-the-norm projects. The company is testing driverless cars. Google’s founders have also invested in space tourism projects and the company has been sponsoring a Moon-related prize, the Lunar X-prize. This $30 million competition aims to find privately funded teams to launch and operate a rover on the moon.
However, the question of who owns asteroids and other celestial bodies remains unanswered.
While the money, technology and entrepreneurial spirit is there, property and mineral rights issues, as well as other topics such as ownership and possession and international treaties, need to be addressed.
A Space Resources Roundtable held in June, in Colorado, tried addressing those issues without major results, reports Space.com:
"The form that space law will finally take will depend on who has the guts and funds to start the process, what case it’s started with, where it is adjudicated — be it the U.S., Australia, Europe or Asia, for example — and how the lawyers chose to argue their respective points during its course," said Leslie Gertsch, deputy director of the Rock Mechanics & Explosives Research Center at the Missouri University of Science and Technology.
“In the coming years, it's reasonable, normal and perfectly sound to make claims in space,” added Gregory Nemitz, chief executive officer of Orbital Development in Twin Falls, Idaho.
Planetary Resources was founded in 2009 by Eric Anderson and Peter H. Diamandis. Their vision is to establish a new paradigm for resource utilization that will bring the solar system within humanity’s economic sphere of influence.