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Incoming! Asteroid miners are getting financial boost from NASA cash

Planetary Resources

An artist's concept shows Planetary Resources' Arkyd Interceptor spacecraft closing in on an asteroid.

Commercial ventures are planning to send out profit-hunting missions to asteroids by the year 2020 — but in the shorter term, they're bringing in money by developing technologies that may show up on NASA spacecraft before they're put to use commercially.

For example, NASA said this week that it would award up to $125,000 to Arkyd Astronautics for a software system that would allow spacecraft to maneuver autonomously in close proximity with near-Earth asteroids — or the International Space Station. "Companies like SpaceX and others providing commercial resupply services to the ISS, as well as vehicles like HTV and ATV, could benefit from the proposed software," Arkyd said in its proposal.

So who's behind Arkyd Astronautics? Arkyd is actually an old code name for the Planetary Resources asteroid-mining company.

Planetary Resources' ultimate goal is to identify promising near-Earth asteroids, and then process the water and the precious metals they contain. The metals could be used in space or transported back to Earth, while the water could be turned into breathable air and rocket fuel for deep-space missions. If the reality matches the vision, asteroid mining could become a multitrillion-dollar industry. "It's just waiting to be had," said the company's co-founder and co-chairman, Eric Anderson.

The software system that won NASA's backing, known as COARSE, could be used on the spacecraft that Planetary Resources will send to asteroids. But it could conceivably be used before that on NASA's OSIRIS-REx mission, which is due for launch to a near-Earth asteroid in 2016. The same dual-use principle applies to a $124,960 NASA grant that Planetary Resources won last year for work on a laser-based communication system for small satellites.

Planetary Resources has said it is also receiving funding from the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. "With reference to DARPA, the company cannot comment on any specific project work at this time," company president Chris Lewicki told NBC News in an emailed statement. "When appropriate, more details will be released."

By themselves, technology development contracts from NASA and DARPA won't get Planetary Resources to the company's near-Earth nirvana. But the income stream serves as a supplement to the money put into the venture by billionaire investors such as Google's Larry Page and Eric Schmidt.

More funding ahead
There could be more government funding ahead: Last month, Aviation Week reported that NASA was planning to ask for $100 million as a down payment on a multibillion-dollar mission to corral a 23-foot-wide (7-meter-wide) asteroid and bring it to the vicinity of the moon for study. Also last month, lawmakers hinted that they'd support increased funding for asteroid research, particularly in light of February's meteor blast over Russia.

That beefed-up government spending could be seen as competition for commercial asteroid ventures — but it's more likely to turn into an opportunity.

"Let's create a cooperative situation from the very beginning, where different companies get a chance to participate and use some of that taxpayer money to catalyze the beginning of an industrial economy in space," said Rick Tumlinson, chairman of Deep Space Industries.

Like Planetary Resources, Deep Space Industries is trying to get into the asteroid-mining business — and looking for closer-to-home opportunities in the meantime. Tumlinson said his company is in the midst of discussions with NASA officials about potential deals. He doesn't mind the fact that he's competing with Planetary Resources for the business.

"One company is an anomaly. Two companies is an industry," Tumlinson said.

Selling technology
Both companies want to capitalize on technologies long before they hit the asteroid jackpot: Deep Space Industries touts 3-D printers that can turn ground-up metal into high-strength parts, even in zero gravity. Planetary Resources, meanwhile, plans to sell its Arkyd space telescopes for Earth observation or space exploration.

"If you wanted to send a camera to Mars or Venus, you could do it yourself," Planetary Resources' Anderson said.

Planetary Resources co-chairman Peter Diamandis discusses his asteroid-mining vision in a "Solve for X" video.

Anderson provided an update on Planetary Resources' plans this week during a Hacker News Seattle meet-up. Here are some of the high points:

  • The first prototype telescope is now scheduled to launch within about 22 months, most likely as a secondary payload on a rocket yet to be determined. That's roughly a year later than the initial projections, but Anderson told NBC News that the time frame was dependent on launch opportunities.
  • Eventually, swarms of six to 12 probes would be sent out to near-Earth asteroids. Anderson said the first such deep-space reconnaissance mission could be launched in five to seven years.
  • One of the asteroids on Anderson's "top 20 list" of prospects is an object cataloged as 2011 UW158, which is about a kilometer (half a mile) wide. The travel time for a space probe would be a little more than half a year, and if 2011 UW158 could be successfully mined, the value of the raw materials could range from $300 billion to $5.4 trillion, Anderson said. "That is a nice piece of rock," he said.
  • Platinum-group metals, or PGMs, are among the most valuable (and most talked about) resources that asteroids could yield. The price of platinum is currently just a bit less than the price of gold — about $1,520 per ounce. Anderson said a single 500-meter-wide (quarter-mile-wide) asteroid could contain more platinum than has been mined during the history of humanity. Planetary Resources is looking at a process that would turn the extracted platinum into 220-pound, 7-foot-wide "wiffleballs" of foamed metal that could be sent down through the atmosphere without breaking up. The balls would hit the ground at a velocity of about 60 mph.

Is all this doable? Does it sound like pie (or platinum) in the sky? Either way, feel free to share your view in the comment section below.

Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.