America’s Rocket Man leads a new gold rush into space

Since childhood, Peter Diamandis had wanted to become a space miner. But could mining asteroids be profitable - or even possible?

"Since my childhood I've wanted to do one thing, be an asteroid miner," Peter Diamandis recently told Forbes. "So stay tuned on that one." This week, Diamandis and fellow space entrepreneur Eric Anderson pushed the launch button on the idea announcing a new company, Planetary Resources Inc, which plans to send robots to space to mine asteroids for precious metals.

At first sight, it seems a "quixotic quest" more redolent of sci-fi comics and Hollywood than real life, says The Wall Street Journal. But scientists have been mulling ways of mining "near-earth" asteroids for years. The process, while extraordinarily expensive, is thought to be technically achievable (see below). What's more, the duo have no shortage of cash behind them: backers include Google founders Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, film director James Cameron and a brace of Nasa scientist-astronauts.

Peter Diamandis is "a godsend for those who suffer from Armageddon fatigue", says The Economist. Although best known for kick-starting the commercial space boom by founding the Ansari X Prize, his interests extend to genomics, the internet, artificial intelligence and hyper-fast cars. He's also a co-founder of the Singularity University a boot-camp for innovative start-ups.

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For the "fast-talking" Diamandis, the glass isn't just half-full, "it's constantly overflowing", says Forbes. Life, he says in his new book, Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think, is so bountiful that its possibilities are limitless, if only we can find a way to tap into them. "And he's the guy to show us how."

The son of Greek immigrants, Diamandis, 51, spent his Long Island childhood obsessed with the Apollo space programme and experimenting with rockets and explosives. He once attempted to launch a rocket, "Mongo", on the field where Charles Lindbergh launched the first successful transatlantic flight in 1927.

Diamandis dreamed of becoming an astronaut, but his parents pushed him to study medicine so he could take over the family practice. "So I said, OK, I'll try to do both'" eventually gaining a degree in aeronautics and astronautics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a Harvard MD.

Ultimately, galaxies beat gynaecology and, in 1988, Diamandis launched into the space business. His venture, International MicroSpace, won a contract from the US government's Star Wars programme, but struggled to get funding. That failure inspired him to think about prizes as a way of sharing the financial risk.

He announced the X Prize for a private spaceship in 1996, though the plan "didn't achieve lift-off for years", says Forbes. The breakthrough came when Diamandis read that an Iranian-American telecoms entrepreneur, Anousheh Ansari, dreamed of going into space and approached her to fund his idea.

If America's "Rocket Man" succeeds in mining asteroids, he'll become a multi-billionaire. But it isn't money that drives him, says one friend. "He always tries to find the one thing where something can be done that needs to be done [and] makes it happen." If anyone can coax humanity into the cosmos, it is Peter Diamandis.

Will asteroid mining pay dividends?

"There's gold in them there hills," says Adam Mann on "You know, those ones floating around in space." As Diamandis points out, nearly 9,000 asteroids orbit near the Earth containing trillions of dollars worth of platinum, gold and other highly valuable commodities.

Tapping these riches could mean "a gold rush". Planetary Resources envisages launching telescopes to identify likely targets within the next 18 to 24 months and sending up "a swarm" of spacecraft to perform more detailed prospecting within five to seven years.

Sceptical scientists argue the venture could never be cost-effective even with platinum and gold at nearly $1,600 an ounce. Not only does Planetary Resources "need to find a lower-cost way to access space", says former Nasa aerospace engineer, Louis Friedman, but even asteroids rich in platinum would yield only about two ounces of the metal per ton of ore. Dragging that lot through the gravitational field would be quite a feat. The alternative of refining the ore remotely on the asteroid is equally challenging.

Maybe, says Phil Plait on, but "I love this idea" and think it's attainable. Still, with no hope of profit for years, would investors "really stick with it"? Actually, even if the project "fails to return a single rock to Earth", its backers would still benefit if the firm's technologies "find application in space tourism or terrestrial mining", says Kevin Allison on Breakingviews. It could also boost our understanding of asteroids, increasing our ability to deflect any headed our way.