Updated 1:22 pm ET, Wednesday, April 25
Planetary Resources, an ambitious new private spacefaring company backed by a number of high-tech billionaires on Tuesday detailed its plans to mine asteroids near earth for resources such as platinum and water, using a fleet of robotic, drill-equipped spacecraft.
But it’s not the only company that has its eyes on wringing space rocks for resources and riches. Another company, Shackleton Energy Company, was launched in 2007 specifically to pursue commercial mining operations on the moon, with the goal of eventually establishing a manned lunar mining colony at a cost of about $25 billion.
Shackleton’s proposed mining operations would specifically go after water ice trapped in the Moon’s polar craters (including the Shackleton crater near the moon’s south pole) which would then be split into constituent hydrogen and oxygen and used to synthesize rocket fuel. The fuel would then be transported to depots in orbit around the Earth, allowing craft to be launched from the ground with less fuel aboard at a cheaper cost.
Shackleton detailed its plans in the following video:
Shackleton was founded by Bill Stone, president of Stone Aerospace, a Texas based firm developing robotic exploration vehicles for the deep sea and outer space.
Stone in 2011 told SPACE.com that Shackleton was on track to send two robotic prospecting missions to the moon within four years, but that mining wouldn’t take place until 2021, at the earliest.
Stone’s other company, Stone Aerospace was itself the recipient of a $4 million, four-year NASA contract to develop an ice-drilling robotic probe that would be used to obtain samples from Jupiter’s moon Europa. Unfortunately, that project has been placed on indefinite hold now on hold due to NASA’s tightened budget for 2013.
Still, Shackleton found reason to celebrate its rival space mining company’s plans. As Shackleton CEO Dale Tietz told TPM via email:
“The announcement today of the new space mining program led by Planetary Resources is a significant validation of this business that demonstrates, with significant private investment, lucrative commercial mining opportunities exist in space that could benefit humanity.”
Tietz also provided a revised and updated, more nebulous timeline for its lunar mining colony, telling TPM: “This decade we will deploy our propellant depots, provide support services (repair, provisioning and logistics) and will initiate building out the new in-space transport system for all spacefaring customers starting in Low Earth Orbit and the Moon.”
Meanwhile, regarding the uncharted legal territory that could cause problems for space mining operations, Shackelton cavalierly brushed them aside;
“As for legal hurdles, we see no major obstacles that preclude immediate commercial mining and production operations in space, as all will be space treaty compliant. As we build our infrastructure of depots, transporters, habitation and mining operations, we would be delighted to provide Planetary Resources with propellants, services and infrastructure support to make them even more successful as one of our commercial customers.”
One hitch that may hold Shackleton back: Funding. The company attempted a crowdfunding campaign on the website RocketHub in October 2011 but only raised about $5,000 of a targeted $1.2 million. Still, Shackleton says it is pursuing its plans and alternate funding sources.
Correction: This article originally incorrectly cited the cost of Shackleton’s proposed lunar mining operation at $87 billion, when it fact that number is from a NASA study for a larger operation that would be undertaken by the agency. We have since corrected the error in copy and we regret it.