- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 24, 2012

SEATTLE — Space-faring robots could be extracting gold and platinum from asteroids within 10 years if a new venture backed by two Silicon Valley titans and filmmaker James Cameron gets off the ground as planned.

Outside experts are skeptical about the project because it would probably require untold millions or perhaps billions of dollars and huge advances in technology. But the same entrepreneurs pioneered the selling of space rides to tourists - a notion that seemed fanciful not long ago, too.

“Since my early teenage years, I’ve wanted to be an asteroid miner. I always viewed it as a glamorous vision of where we could go,” Peter Diamandis, one of the founders of Planetary Resources, told a news conference Tuesday at the Museum of Flight in Seattle. The company’s vision “is to make the resources of space available to humanity.”

The inaugural step, to be achieved in the next 18 to 24 months, would be launching the first in a series of private telescopes that would search for the right type of asteroids.

The plan is to use commercially built robotic ships to squeeze rocket fuel and valuable minerals out of the rocks that routinely whiz by Earth. Company leaders predict they could have their version of a space-based gas station up and running by 2020.

Several scientists not involved in the project said they were simultaneously thrilled and wary, calling the plan daring, difficult - and very pricey.

Richard Binzel, professor of planetary science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said the effort “may be many decades ahead of its time. But you have to start somewhere.”

The major issue is cost-effectiveness, even with platinum and gold worth nearly $1,600 an ounce. An upcoming NASA mission to return just 2 ounces of an asteroid to Earth will cost about $1 billion.

But the entrepreneurs behind Planetary Resources Inc. have a track record of profiting off space ventures. Mr. Diamandis and co-founder Eric Anderson pioneered the idea of selling rides into space to tourists, and Mr. Diamandis‘ company offers “weightless” airplane flights.

Investors and advisers to the new company include Google CEO Larry Page and Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and Mr. Cameron, the man behind the blockbuster films “Titanic” and “Avatar.”

Mr. Anderson acknowledged the many potential pitfalls.

“There will be times when we fail. There will be times when we have to pick up the pieces and try again,” Mr. Anderson said.

The mining, fuel processing and later refueling would all be done without humans, Mr. Anderson said. There are probably 1,500 asteroids of at least 160 feet width that pass near Earth and thus would be good initial targets.

Asteroids are made mostly of rock and metal and range from a couple of dozen feet wide to nearly 10 miles long. The new venture targets the free-flying asteroids, seeking to extract from them the rare Earth platinum metals that are used in batteries, electronics and medical devices, Mr. Diamandis said.