Space rocks are easy

Eric Anderson, who has launched tourists into space, now wants to mine asteroids for minerals
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Updated on Jul 29, 2012 02:13 AM IST
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None | By Rupert Neate, Guardian News Service

For as long as he can remember Eric Anderson wanted to become an astronaut. But knew his short-sightedness would prevent him from joining Nasa.

Instead, he has made it his mission to take others into space. He kick-started the space tourism industry at the age of 23 — so far his company, Space Adventures, has sent seven millionaires into space on Russian rockets.

Anderson, who developed his love of space from stargazing in the Rocky Mountains as a child, would love to go on a trip around the moon himself. But he hasn't got enough money.

However, he reckons he's worked out where he's going to make the millions needed: space, of course. Turning mineral-rich asteroids into the next frontier of mining, to be more precise.

Anderson says the asteroids, which range in size from 10 metres to 50 km, are full of expensive metals — gold, silver, diamonds.

"You have to go back to the beginning of the solar system to understand why," he says. "Asteroids were formed at the beginning of the solar system hundreds of millions of years ago — they are planetary cores, basically. The Earth has lots of these metals, but they all sink to the middle, here [on asteroids] all the super-heavy materials have sunk together."

It may sound like an idea that came to him while watching Bruce Willis in Armageddon, but Anderson, who studied aerospace engineering, is serious. He has got a string of serious businessmen — including Google bosses Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, Titanic director James Cameron, and Ross Perot Jr (son of the ex-presidential candidate) — to invest into his new company, Planetary Resources. A "$100 billion global mining company", which Anderson refuses to name, has also signed up for rights to the first minerals recovered.

He claims to have the backing of the White House for his out-of-this world plan. "You say it's impractical, but people thought it was impractical to put private citizens on rockets — and we did that," Anderson says.

He also counters fears that bringing back cheap metals to Earth will lead to a spike in pollution. "Would you rather we dig up all the mountains on Earth to get to the last 5% left there or go to space, find a rock that's 30 million miles away, and use everything on it?" he asks. "There's no life on these objects."

Another problem his ambitious project could throw up is who owns space and its resources. Could it lead to an international fight for control as witnessed in Antarctica and the Arctic? "Nobody owns it right now," Anderson says. "If we get to it, we basically own it — that's the long and short of it."

"If you go out into the ocean and go fishing, nobody says they own all the fish in the ocean. If you build a boat and go out and catch a fish, you own it."

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