Remember that movie "Armageddon"? Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck travel to space to drill into an asteroid and break it apart before it collides with Earth.
Here are two pieces of good news while that late-'90s classic is fresh in your mind: Flaming spheres of death are not — for the time being, at least — careening toward Earth. And asteroid drilling could actually benefit the planet, according to a pair of space entrepreneurs who want to do it.
Peter Diamandis and Eric Anderson will announce next week the launch of Planetary Resources, a new company they've created that aims to sell resources extracted from asteroids.
Asteroids, which contain high levels of ingredients for fuel and precious metals like platinum and iron, could provide Earth with a crucial supply of raw materials, NASA scientists say. And since private ownership of outer space is still up in the air, private companies like Planetary Resources could cash in on the materials.
Diamandis, a creator of the X-Prize Foundation, which organizes non-profit technology competitions, predicted in 2008 that "a group of entrepreneurs will be laying claim to asteroids, the rights to which will be sold for hundreds of billions of dollars."
Over the past few years, he's been hush about his plan to, someday, be one of those entrepreneurs — that is, with the exception of occasional hints, such as earlier this year during a live interview with Forbes.
"Since childhood, I wanted to do one thing — be an asteroid miner," Diamandis said. "So stay tuned on that one."
Then, this week, Diamandis announced his company's plans to create "a new industry in space and a new definition of natural resources," a press release obtained by MIT Technology Review said.
More details will emerge at a news conference scheduled for April 24. But a source who spoke to Diamandis about his venture — and did not want to be identified because the discussion was private — confirmed to The Huffington Post that Planetary Resources does, in fact, plan to mine asteroids for precious raw materials.
But critics of the asteroid mining business have questioned its ability to turn a profit for investors, given the high transportation costs. "The realities of business make investment in space resource utilization unlikely without extraordinarily good preparation on the part of the entrepreneurs,"a 2005 academic study found.
Planetary Resources has nevertheless managed to attract several billionaire backers and advisers, including Google's Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, former Microsoft executive Charles Simonyi and filmmaker James Cameron, according to the press release.
"The earth is a crumb in a supermarket of resources," Diamandis said earlier this year in a Forbes interview. "Now we finally have the technology to extract resources outside earth for the benefit of humanity without having to rape and pillage our planet."
Planetary Resources is by no means the only startup trying to cash in on the cosmos. The private space exploration industry — which has benefitted fromPresident Obama pulling the plug on NASA-funded spaceflightsin July 2011 — includes SpaceX, Moon Express and Bigelow Aerospace.
Studies have found that around 7,500 near-Earth asteroids exist, most of which are worth between $1 billion and $25 billion each if their resources were sold on Earth.