The next step in the space mining race

Mining in space seems like a futuristic, sci-fi dream, up there with hoverboards and flying cars.

Especially when you realise that humans have not physically been on another planetary body since we last landed on the moon – in 1972, an event which also saw the first (and last) time a geologist went to the moon.

So why would we want to mine asteroids?

“There are more natural resources on asteroids than have ever been mined in the history of the Earth,” American cosmologist Neil de Grasse Tyson explained.

“So in 100 years all wars over limited resources are over because we have access to the unlimited resources in our back yard and that new back yard is our solar system.”

Yet, is it really achievable?

Humans have been to the moon, landed rovers on Mars, and last year – for the first time – we landed probes on the surface of a comet.

Massive advances in communications and rocket technology, coupled with the leaps forward made in resources automation, are making the potential of space mining a reality.

But unlike the space race last century, this one is run mostly by private companies, not nations.

Planetary Resources (PR) – which is backed by Google and has partnered with Virgin Galactic and Bechtel – and Deep Space Industries (DSI) are the frontrunners, having already launched a number of test vehicles, with PR launching its Arkyd 3 spacecraft in July from the International Space Station, and DSI working on processes for manufacturing in space.

These two companies alone are breaking new ground in the field of space operations.

But as is often the case, the capability runs well ahead of the laws governing it.

While automated technology has become a mainstay in the resources industry, it was only recently that codes of practice were created to provide legal structures.

However, the legality of who owns foreign bodies in space was always in question.

With the signing of a new bill in the US – the US Commercial Space Launch Competiveness Act – which  delineates ownership and the rights to mine asteroids and near earth objects (NEOs), at least for US citizens, the future of space mining has become that much more tangible and less opaque.

It follows on from the US creating the Space Act of 2015 delineates the process for obtaining rights to extract resources from asteroids and ownership of those resources, and also gives the fledging space mining industry close to a decade without regulatory oversights.

Importantly, the bill reinforces that only companies or individuals, and not nation states, have rights to the materials obtained in outer space.

However the creation of these new laws has been dubbed by some as a ‘who dares win’ philosophy when it comes to the rights of territory and objects in space, a senior lecture in international commercial law at the University of Kent, Gbenga Oduntan, explained that “the Moon Agreement (1979) has in effect forbidden states to conduct commercial mining on planets and asteroids until there is an international regime for such exploitation. While the US has refused to sign up to this, it is binding as customary international law”.

“The new US act will also allow the private sector to make space innovations without regulatory oversight during an eight-year period and protect spaceflight participants from financial ruin. Surely, this will see private firms begin to incorporate the mining of asteroids into their investment plans.

“Supporters argue that the US Space Act is a bold statement that finally sets private spaceflight free from the heavy regulation of the US government. The misdiagnosis begins here. Space exploration is a universal activity and therefore requires international regulation,” Oduntan said.

“The act represents a full-frontal attack on settled principles of space law which are based on two basic principles: the right of states to scientific exploration of outer space and its celestial bodies and the prevention of unilateral and unbridled commercial exploitation of outer-space resources. These principles are found in agreements including the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 and the Moon Agreement of 1979,” he continued.

“The US House Committee on Science, Space and Technology denies there is anything in the act which violates the US’s international obligations. According to this body, the right to extract and use resources from celestial bodies affirmed by State practice and by the US State Department in Congressional testimony and written correspondence.

“Crucially, there is no specific reference to international law in this statement. Simply relying on US legislation and policy statements to justify the plans is obviously insufficient.”

An international Space Station flight operations engineer and former FIFO miner, Andrea Boyd, also asked Australian Mining, “in what universe is it legally enforceable outside the USA?”

However the head of the world’s leading asteroid miner, Planetary Resources’ CEO Chris Lewicki, believes that the new US laws set a precedent that will provide the industry a strong foundation from which to grow globally.

“We’re very excited that this is a step we’ve taken forward, and [with the signing of this bill] we can proceed with confidence in developing technology for undertaking mining on asteroids,” Lewicki told Australian Mining

 “There are already a lot of international laws governing space, and the US laws were created in regards to these laws,” Lewicki explained.

“The US is taking it another step forward by defining specifics in its laws, and I expect other countries to follow suit.

“[Laws governing space are needed as] we are moving faster than most people think.”

This new privatised space race isn’t on the hunt for glory, like that of the Cold War, instead it is focused on the wealth of metals and minerals to be found in asteroids and other near earth objects.

One asteroid, named 2012 DA14, which flew past earth a few years ago is believed to contain minerals worth around US$195 billion. The incredibly rare Helium-3, which is believed to be found in abundance on the moon, is valued at around US$90,000 per ounce.

While mining in space may seem expensive, terrestrial mining isn’t cheap either.

In 2013 Rio Tinto alone budgeted close to US$1 billion for exploration, while BHP slated US$1.047 billion.

One of the major advantages of mining in space is that once you are in space it is cheaper to produce materials as opposed to facing the higher costs associated with lifting materials out of earth orbit.

“The common argument is that it costs about US$20,000 per kilogram to launch to deep space from Earth, so if you can produce that kilogram in space for less than $20,000, you’re ahead,” director of the Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research, professor Andrew Dempster said.

“In fact, SpaceX publishes its launch costs on its website; currently, for its Falcon 9, that figure is about US$12,600.”

According to Lewicki, one of the major initial focuses will be water, but “water is expensive, it costs about US$850 million to send a tonne of it into space, so finding it in space will make it easier to transport and further build the industry”.

{^youtubevideo|(width)560|(height)340|(rel)True|(autoplay)False|(fs)True|(url)|(loop)False^}Through mining asteroids and obtaining these materials in space, it will dramatically cut the cost of further space exploration, and in turn, colonisation.

“The mining industry has enabled our population to live and thrive on earth, and as our population moves into space we need to find materials locally to support it, so when we’re in space we’re close to asteroids than earth, so we’re now creating the industry that is helping us to move into this future,” Lewicki explained.

According to Gordon Roesler, who works for the Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research: “We have reached the point where the question is no longer: is the commercialisation of space possible?; rather: what is the path to return on investment?”

Interplanetary and asteroid mining is fast becoming a reality, technologically, financially, and legally, and with new laws created in the US – which have no international power – the first real steps are being taken to progress humanity.

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