April 24, 2012 — -- In James Cameron's "Avatar," future astronauts mine the fictional planet Pandora for precious metals.
For a week now, the world has been abuzz with rumors that Cameron was working on the real thing. Here is the real story, as told to ABC News by Planetary Resources, Inc., a startup company that has plans to mine asteroids -- and maybe, just maybe, the money and brain power to pull it off.
"If you believe it's important to have continued prosperity for future generations, we need resources from somewhere," said Eric Anderson, a co-founder of Planetary Resources, in an interview with ABC News. "Near-Earth asteroids are way, way more appealing than just about any other place we might look."
Anderson said his company is interested in finding two things in space: water, and precious metals such as platinum and palladium. Both could be useful both on Earth and to reduce the cost of future space travel. Water can be broken down into hydrogen for fuel and oxygen for breathing; platinum is used in electronic components, though its use has been limited by its price.
Mining asteroids may sound like one of those ideas guaranteed not to get off the ground anytime soon, but Anderson and his comrades say they have detailed plans, and deep pockets as well. Among their backers:
What's more, Anderson and his founding partner, Peter Diamandis, have a track record.
Anderson started Space Adventures, the company that arranged the space flights of Simonyi and other multimillionaires, sometimes despite the objections of NASA and the Russian space agency.
Diamandis founded the X Prize Foundation, which prompted private companies to venture into space. The prize was won by a team led by aerospace engineer Burt Rutan, whose SpaceShipOne flew 100 km (62 miles) over the California desert in 2004.
"Everything we hold of value on Earth -- metals, minerals, energy, water, real estate -- are literally in near-infinite quantities in space," said Diamandis.
Eventually, Anderson said he could picture fleets of robotic "droids" closing in on asteroids, scouring their surfaces for minerals and either bringing them back to Earth or to supply depots in space. The company says there are more than 1,500 asteroids that pass close to Earth, and, since they don't have much gravitational pull, it would take less fuel to land on them than on the moon.
Anderson said the idea is to start small, with a telescope in Earth orbit to look for asteroids that pass close to us and have the right mix of minerals. He claimed the launch could happen soon -- in as little as 18 months to two years.
To keep the cost down, it might share a booster rocket with another satellite. Who might make the booster? The Russians, or a private American company, he said -- anyone who can do it for an affordable price.
Mining Asteroids: Can Planetary Resources Pull It Off?
"If NASA really wants to explore space, it has to cut the cost of getting there," Anderson said. "We could set up propellant depots where they need them. The cost of delivering fuel would be slashed by a factor of 100."
But the enterprise would have to be a step at a time. A lot of cutting-edge technology would have to become routinely reliable. And ambitious engineering projects -- whether run by governments or private enterprise -- have a bad habit of growing in cost.
So could it work? So far, there are some veteran doubters who don't sound doubtful. Phil Plait, an astronomer turned writer who keeps an often-skeptical blog called Bad Astronomy, said he did not know the project's details but was impressed: "Let me be frank: I don't think this is a crazy idea."
And physicist Michio Kaku told ABC News he thought Planetary Resources might just have enough resources to pull it off.
"I think they are part crazy and part genius," he said. "But the bottom line is, they're rich."