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New venture aims to mine nearby asteroids

Entrepreneurs invest in the next space frontier

Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

Peter Diamandis, left, Chris Lewicki, and Eric Anderson’s Planetary Resources would sell asteroids’ water and metals.

WASHINGTON - Asteroids have made people nervous for several decades now, ever since scientists declared that a large object from space smashed into the Earth 65 million years ago and put the kibosh on the Age of Dinosaurs. But now some entrepreneurs and tech tycoons are declaring that there is money in those space rocks.

Asteroids are full of water and precious metals. The water could be processed to create fuel depots for spaceships; the metals can be mined and brought to Earth.

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“This is directly in line with every major exploration that humanity has done,’’ space entrepreneur Peter Diamandis said Tuesday. “It is in line with Magellan, and Columbus, all the great explorers in the 1400s and 1500s, crossing the Atlantic and looking for resources.’’

Diamandis and entrepreneur Eric Anderson held a news conference Tuesday in Seattle to announce the formation of Planetary Resources Inc., their asteroid-mining venture.

The idea of extracting resources from asteroids is an old one, bandied about for decades. Any such venture has the challenge of convincing people that it is not a pie-in-the-sky concept.

But this one can boast well-known tech tycoons as backers. The company says investors include Google co-founder Larry Page, Google chairman Eric Schmidt, Google investor K. Ram Shriram, former Microsoft chief software engineer Charles Simonyi, and H. Ross Perot Jr., son of the former presidential candidate.

Serving as an adviser is James Cameron, film director and deep-sea explorer.

Diamandis and Anderson crafted the asteroid-mining idea about three years ago after having success with other commercial space ventures, including suborbital flights for space tourists. They have hired a former NASA manager, Chris Lewicki, who worked on Mars missions at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The company will design the hardware for mining the asteroids and will purchase flights into space from commercial launch companies.

Diamandis and Anderson said that they are not trying to circumvent NASA, which has been going through a transition period since the retirement of the space shuttle. On the contrary, they want to be NASA’s fuel suppliers.

“What we’re doing is very much aligned with national space goals,’’ Anderson said. “We’re building a gas station for these kinds of rockets to carry out their mission in deep space.’’

He continued: “We are prepared to take the early risks so that the US government would be the beneficiary down the road.’’

The asteroids are in near-Earth orbits, and even a modest-size rock, just 50 yards or so across, contains a massive amount of water, Anderson said.

Water is essential to space flight. It can be processed for fuel, or oxygen, or for drinking or growing plants, he said.

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