Two years ago the Obama Administration cancelled plans for another manned moon shot. The thinking goes, it's not prudent to work on extraterrestrial exploration when we've got so many problems right here at home.
Just two weeks ago, the very symbol of our commitment to explore the heavens flew for the last time.
I'm sure I'm not the only person who felt sad watching the space shuttle Discovery take its last "flight" by piggy-backing on top of a Boeing 747.
Now, with history's most-flown spacecraft mothballed in the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, that's the end of the story, right?
Not so fast...
What I call the New Space Race is about to "take off" in a big way.
Front and center in this race is asteroid mining. And you won't believe how much this stuff could be worth.
Here's the math that will blow your mind: A space rock the size of a museum gallery could contain resources worth $100 billion (according to the startup I'm about to tell you about).
And yes, I mean literally digging into asteroids to extract ores and other materials.
Asteroid Mining Could be a $15 Trillion Business Not long ago, this was the stuff of sci-fi. (It smacks of the 1998 movie Armageddon, in which a team of roughnecks lands on an asteroid on a collision course with Earth in order to blow it out of the sky.)
Today, it's a reality, thanks to advances in three fields - low-cost computing, cheaper rockets, and advanced robotics.
Both private industry and the U.S. government want to extract a wide range of resources from asteroids. They are teeming with resources like iron and nickel. A rock the size of a football stadium contains more platinum than we have mined in all of world history.
Remember, space is a target-rich field.
To date we have discovered some 9,000 of these rocks that pass near Earth's orbit. Of those, about 1,500 are just as easy to get to as the surface of the Moon. Moreover, they have light gravity, meaning spacecraft can land and take off easily.
If we hit pay dirt on all the close asteroids, they would be worth a combined $150 trillion. Don't take my word for it. You can do the math yourself right here.
No doubt, many of those rocks will be dead ends. But if we could tap just 10%, that would total $15 trillion worth of resources. (And if we're being even more conservative, just a 1% return would still equal $1.5 trillion - nearly the value of Canada's entire economy.)
So who's pursuing all this untold wealth?
At least two independent groups that include former NASA officials and leading scientists have plans to tap the thousands of big rocks orbiting in our solar system.
And that's not all. Obama wants an unmanned mission called OSIRIS-Rex to launch in 2016 and land on an asteroid. OSIRIS would return with resource samples by 2023.
NASA isn't just along for the ride. It is casting a wide net in the search for valuable space rocks. The agency has asked amateur stargazers to help find even more near-earth asteroids that show great promise.
So the question isn't if we are going to mine asteroids but when.
Asteroid Mining is a New Paradigm for Resource Discovery As it develops, I think investors should keep an eye on Planetary Resources.
This new startup, based in Bellevue, WA, is on a "mission" to mine asteroids.
The firm has a solid plan. It will begin by making and selling very low-cost robotic spacecraft for survey missions. The team expects to have a demo craft in orbit around Earth within two years.
Next comes the key early part of any good mine - prospecting, the phase in which you find the most valuable spots to drill. That will take between five and 10 years.
Finally, Planetary Resources will develop the most efficient capabilities to deliver these resources - everything from water to platinum - directly to both space-based and Earth-bound customers.
For cutting-edge tech, there's another big payoff - rare earths.
These are the unique elements needed for such products as smart phones and iPads. China controls 97% of the rare earths on Earth. But they don't control outer space...
Now, here is yet another reason I can't help but feel optimistic about America's future. Despite our many challenges, we have so many bright entrepreneurs dedicated to progress that I think we can't help but succeed in the long run.
See, not only does Planetary Resources have tons of money behind it; it also benefits from a team of top-tier leaders focused on success.
This is a group of billionaires who know firsthand how much focus and energy it takes to succeed.
Planetary Resources boasts a cast of big-name backers with a track record for creating wealth - and not just the standard scientists, astronauts, and entrepreneurs you might expect. I'm talking about true visionaries, like:
- Peter Diamandis, who serves as co-chairman for the firm. He also runs the foundation that was responsible for the Ansari X-Prize, a $10 million award for commercial space flight that led to $100 million in high-tech investments;
- Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, two senior execs from Google Inc. (Nasdaq: GOOG);
- Charles Simonyi, formerly of Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT). He has already made two trips to space and funded other related ventures;
- Ross Perot, Jr., son of the high-tech leader who ran for president;
- John S. Lewis, author of "Mining the Sky: Untold Riches from the Asteroids, Comets, and Planets." In this 1997 book, Lewis argues that natural resources and energy are abundant in the solar system and could support a vast civilization many times larger than ours (1016 people).
- And even film director James Cameron.
Make no mistake about it: These guys are in it for the long haul.
"We're not expecting this company to be an overnight financial home run," Eric Anderson, the company's co-founder and co-chairman, told Reuters last month. "This is going to take time."
Like I said, the U.S. remains committed to space flights. This time, however, it's even better - we don't need to depend so much on NASA and federal funding. Because private enterprise has every incentive to make asteroid mining a success.
And that means it's just a matter of time before tech investors find ways to profit from the New Space Race. Stay tuned.
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