A new company is tomorrow expected to announce plans for an asteroid-mining operation.
Planetary Resources claims its new venture will revolutionize space exploration, and has the backing of film director James Cameron - fresh back from the bottom of the Mariana Trench - as well as Google billionaires Eric Schmidt and Larry Page. A former NASA mission manager and a veteran astronaut are also part of the team.
"The company will overlay two critical sectors – space exploration and natural resources – to add trillions of dollars to the global GDP," it says. "This innovative start-up will create a new industry and a new definition of 'natural resources'."
The possibility of mining asteroids for their iron, nickel and other valuable minerals has been a staple of science fiction for decades. This is the first time, though, that any organization's announced plans to actually have a shot at the high-risk, high-cost challenge.
The rewards could be high, with many asteroids believed to contain large quantities of valuable minerals - indeed, most of the heavy metals found on the Earth are believed to have arrived here through asteroid strikes. It's been estimated that a single 1km asteroid could contain more nickel-iron than the Earth's entire annual production.
Earlier this month, the Keck Institute for Space Studies produced a report suggesting that it would be feasible within the next decade to capture a 500-ton asteroid around seven meters across and park it in orbit around the moon for leisurely mining.
"Ever since the completion of the cold-war-based Apollo program there has been no over-arching geo-political rationale for the nation’s space ventures," says the report.
"Retrieving an asteroid for human exploration and exploitation would provide a new rationale for global achievement and inspiration. For the first time humanity would begin modification of the heavens for its benefit."
Planetary Resources' first target would likely be a near-Earth asteroid that could be captured relatively easily. In the longer term, however, the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter could provide virtually unlimited quantities of raw materials: NASA has calculated that the mineral wealth resident in the belt amounts to about 100 billion dollars for every person on Earth today.