The new space race
Starting your own space-exploration company is the perfect second career for today's technology billionaires.
Australia is cashing in on the resources boom on Earth but it's lagging behind in the race to the new mineral frontier ... space.
That's the view of Duncan Steel of the Australian Centre for Astrobiology at the University of New South Wales after Google's Eric E. Schmidt, Larry Page and Sergey Brin last week announced plans for company Planetary Resources to mine asteroids for precious metals.
"If science really is Australia's future – as CSIRO says it is – the country doesn't have a hope," said Steel.
"This is going to take time" ... Eric Anderson, co-founder of Planetary Resources.
Steel was involved in the first southern-hemisphere search for near-Earth asteroids back in 1989, when Australia was well-positioned in the field. But in 1996 the federal government cut all funding to asteroid research, later declaring it to be "a fruitless, unnecessary, self-indulgent exercise".
"We were the second-leading nation in the world 20 years ago, and now 20 or 30 nations have whizzed past us," he said.
While Steel says that nobody is likely to profit from asteroid mining for at least 20 years, he believes it is the way of the future due to the simple fact that asteroids are the most accessible object in the solar system.
With no funding and no research completed for 16 years, Australia looks set to lose out if and when the next generation mining boom takes off.
"You can't turn up at the last minute and expect to make money out of it. If you never buy a round of drinks you never get invited to the party," he said.
Whether or not Australia is able to eventually jump on the bandwagon, doubts have been cast over the legality of the whole idea.
Under the 1967 Global Space Treaty, space is defined as a 'global commons', making it unclear who actually has the right to mine asteroids and profit from their resources.
Frans von der Dunk, professor of space law at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln says that there are many complex legal implications and issues involving liability.
"No one state can exercise sovereignty claims over any asteroid ... [it] leaves a lot to be desired in terms of legal security," he said.
The mining of asteroids could lead to lawsuits, and Planetary Resources – which claims to be the first asteroid mining company in history – would have no defence against rival start-ups.
"There is no real legal security even to products once extracted," he said.
The mass of an asteroid would also be altered by the mining process, possibly changing its trajectory and making it more or less likely to collide with Earth.
Despite this, Steel believes that the legally ambiguous nature of the process at present may be an advantage.
"Who's going to stop you? Who's going to say 'no, that's mine, you can't mine it' because it doesn't belong to anybody," he said.
Planetary Resources, which was founded by Peter Diamandis and Eric Anderson, has not yet responded to the legal and ethical issues surrounding their venture.
The company plans to mine near-Earth asteroids for raw materials that range from water to precious metals, most importantly platinum.
"Many of the scarce metals and minerals on Earth are in near-infinite quantities in space," said Diamandis.
According to the company, which is advised by filmmaker James Cameron, one 500-metre platinum-rich asteroid contains the equivalent of all the platinum group metals ever mined on Earth. They believe that this has the potential to add trillions of dollars to the global economy.
Despite the lucrative nature of the business, it carries a high risk and is extremely expensive – space missions can cost billions of dollars. Thus the company's first step is to develop technologies that reduce the cost of robotic space probes, with mining ventures not expected to begin until at least 2022.
"We have a long view. We're not expecting this company to be an overnight financial home run. This is going to take time," said Anderson.
But Planetary Resources is not alone in the newfound space race. Here's a look at other technology entrepreneurs broadening their horizons:
Before Planetary Resources, Google co-founder Sergey Brin was an investor in Space Adventures, a company that offers orbital, sub-orbital and zero gravity spaceflights and a lunar mission scheduled for 2015.
Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen invested in ScapeShipOne back in 2004, which successfully completed the first ever manned private spaceflight. He now funds Stratolaunch Systems, a company that is building a giant aircraft to carry cargo and equipment into space.
PayPal co-founder Elon Musk started SpaceX in 2002, a space travel company that is scheduled to send an unmanned spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS) later this month. If successful, the launch will be the first time a private craft has docked with the ISS. "I think we have got a pretty good shot but it is worth emphasising that there is a lot that can go wrong on a mission like this," said Musk. The company has already been awarded more than US$1 billion in contracts from NASA, according to Forbes magazine.
Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos founded the private aerospace company Blue Origin 12 years ago. He recently invested an estimated US$18 billion of his own money into the company, which is competing with the likes of Boeing to create the next generation of spacecraft that will transport astronauts to the ISS.
Perhaps the most well-known player in the space race is Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson. The company, which offers space travel to consumers for the (relatively) low price of US$200,000, has so far sold 500 tickets.