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Google billionaires, James Cameron backing space resource venture

X Prize founder/chairman Peter Diamandis talks about asteroid mining.

The folks who brought you zero-gravity airplane flights and multimillion-dollar trips to the International Space Station have lined up some billionaire investors for their next space venture — but they're not quite ready to tell you all about it.

Instead, they're sending out a media alert for a Seattle news conference next week, when they promise to "unveil a new space venture with a mission to help ensure humanity's prosperity." The new venture, called Planetary Resources, has the stated aim of expanding Earth's resource base. That's led a couple of observers to speculate that Planetary Resources is being formed to go into the extraterrestrial mining business.

One of the venture's founders is Peter Diamandis, who has played a leading role in setting up multimillion-dollar X Prizes for private space travel and other technological feats. He also founded Zero G Corp., which turned weightless-airplane flights into a tourist attraction. The other co-founder/co-chairman is Eric Anderson, who is chairman of Space Adventures, the company that has arranged space station trips for a succession of millionaires and billionaires.

A former client of Anderson's, software billionaire (and two-time spaceflier) Charles Simonyi, is listed as an investor in Planetary Resources. Other investors and advisers on the list include Google's Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, plus fellow billionaires K. Ram Shriram and Ross Perot Jr. (son of the former presidential candidate), plus filmmaker James Cameron. 

X Prize Foundation

Google co-founder Larry Page and X Prize co-founder Peter Diamandis share the microphone in 2007 during the unveiling of the Google Lunar X Prize. Page is listed as an investor in Planetary Resources, another venture that Diamandis is founding.

Today's media alert says the new company "will overlay two critical sectors — space exploration and natural resources — to add trillions of dollars to the global GDP. This innovative start-up will create a new industry and a new definition of 'natural resources.'"

"That sounds like asteroid mining," Christopher Mims writes on MIT Technology Review's "Mims' Bits" blog. "Because what else is there in space that we need here on earth? Certainly not a livable climate or a replacement for our dwindling supplies of oil."

Parabolic Arc's Doug Messier, meanwhile, writes that the venture will be an "extraterrestrial mining company."

Diamandis has said on more than one occasion that he's intrigued by the idea of digging into asteroids, for materials ranging from water (for fuel as well as for astronauts) to precious metals such as platinum. The Verge points to a TED talk in 2005 where Diamandis discusses his dream, while Forbes magazine has brought up the subject with him more than once in the past few months.

For now, Planetary Resources is keeping the mystery close to the vest. The plan is to reveal the details next Tuesday at the Seattle Museum of Flight's Charles Simonyi Space Gallery. Diamandis, Anderson and Simonyi will be in attendance, along with Chris Lewicki, a former NASA Mars mission manager who is the company's president and chief engineer; and Tom Jones, a planetary scientist and retired astronaut who serves as an adviser to the company.

Will the mystery keep until then? Stay tuned.

Peter Diamandis, founder of the X Prize Foundation and co-author of "Abundance: Why the Future is Better Than You Think," talks about the key to prosperity in the 21st century, and the importance of innovation and forward thinking to make the impossible possible.

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Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter or adding Cosmic Log's Google+ page to your circle. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for other worlds.