Having created one of the titans of cyberspace, which helps to run the lives of billions, Larry Page and Eric Schmidt may well regard themselves as masters of planet Earth. Google's mega-rich founders have built a global empire worth over £120bn by channelling unimaginable volumes of information to our cherished laptops, smartphones and tablets.
But it seems that, for Page and Schmidt, the world is no longer enough. The pair are now staking a claim for galactic domination by backing a plan to mine asteroids. Google's chief executive and executive chairman are named as key players in Planetary Resources Inc, which appears set to go boldly where no magnate has gone before.
The exact nature of the business will be revealed on Tuesday, but it appears Page and Schmidt are aiming high. "The company will overlay two critical sectors – space exploration and natural resources – to add trillions of dollars to the global GDP," Planetary Resources said in a press release. "This innovative start-up will create a new industry and a new definition of 'natural resources'."
Others investing in the new business include Avatar director James Cameron; Ross Perot Jr, son of the former presidential candidate; and billionaire Microsoft alumnus Charles Simonyi, who has already made two trips to the International Space Station. The announcement comes just as scientists are embracing the idea of mining "near-Earth asteroids".
Earlier this month, a study by Nasa concluded that, for a cost of £1.6bn, robotic spacecraft could capture a 500-ton asteroid seven metres in diameter and bring it into orbit around the Moon to be explored and mined. The spacecraft would have a flight time of six to 10 years, and humans would be able to carry out the task by around 2025.
President Barack Obama has already talked of sending a manned mission to an asteroid by the same year, while Nasa is working on an unmanned mission, called Osiris-Rex, that would launch in 2016 and land on an asteroid, bringing a small chunk of it back to Earth by 2023.
The costs would be as eye-watering as a Martian atmosphere, but the potential rewards are vast. Large amounts of water, oxygen and metals could be extracted to help further space exploration by allowing humans to build space stations and fuel spacecraft. The resources could also be brought back to Earth to bolster diminishing reserves. And with the likes of the Google bosses on board, the project would appear to have plenty of financial support. Schmidt was awarded a compensation package worth £62m last year for shifting from CEO to executive chairman.
Planetary Resources was co-founded by Eric Anderson, a former Nasa Mars-mission manager, and Peter Diamandis, the commercial space entrepreneur behind the X-Prize competition,which offered £6m to a group that launched a reusable manned spacecraft.
The venture will be the latest foray into the far-flung for Cameron, who last month dived in a mini-submarine to the deepest spot in the Mariana Trench. It also has echoes of his 2009 science fiction blockbuster Avatar, which concerned mining on alien planets.
Planetary Resources will be the second billionaire-backed private space company to be announced within the past six months. In December, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen unveiled his new firm, Stratolaunch Systems, which plans to build the world's largest aircraft and use it as an air-based launch pad to send people into orbit.
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