Asteroids are more than just streaks of light in the sky for Ross Perot, Jr. He and a bevy of other billionaire investors are backing a new project to mine the celestial rocks for rare earth elements.

The ambitious company, Planetary Resources, aims to deploy robotic spacecraft to suss out and mine asteroids packed with valuable metals by 2020. Some of those metals would be sent back to earth, and long-haul spacecrafts could use other minerals as fuel. (Still confused? MSNBC’s Cosmic Log put together a very helpful infographic on what the company wants to do.)

While this might sound like something of a cosmic boondoggle, a lot of money is potentially on the line if the project is a success: “A fortune is at stake — a single asteroid rich with platinum and other rare metals could be worth a trillion dollars,” Eric Berger wrote in the Houston Chronicle.

In addition to Perot (who clocks in at number 913 on Forbes 2012 Billionaires List), Planetary Resources convinced Google’s Larry Page (number 24 on Forbes‘ list and worth a cool $18.7 billion) and Eric Schmidt (who is worth $6.9 billion and is ranked number 138 on Forbes‘ list) to invest in the company. Director James Cameron will serve as an adviser.

Planetary Resources is serious about asteroid mining: “This company is not about thinking and dreaming about asteroid mining,” said Eric Anderson, the company’s other co-founder. “This company is about creating a space economy beyond the Earth, it’s about building real hardware, and it’s about doing real things in space to move the needle forward.”

“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, co-founder of Planetary Resources, told a group of reporters assembled at Seattle’s Museum of Flight, according to USA Today‘s Byron Acohido.

Not everyone was optimistic about the company’s prospects, including Larry Bell, director of Sasakawa International Center for Space Architecture at the University of Houston. “With all due respect to my long-term friend Peter Diamandis, I am extremely pessimistic about any real asteroid prospecting prospects in the foreseeable future,” Bell told Berger.

On his blog, Berger investigated whether mining asteroids is even legal. The United States and the Soviet Union signed the Outer Space Treaty in the 1960s, which makes outer space a “global commons,” like Antarctica is treated. The treaty allowed for private companies to explore space, but requires them to “be ‘supervised’ by the country of their origin,” Berger writes.

WATCH Diamandis explain his plan in this video: