Is Space Mining the Next Big Thing?
Minerals that lie in the wave of asteroids between Mars and Jupiter are estimated to be worth approximately $100 billion for every individual on Earth. While the race to space traditionally has advanced with exploration, with quickly evolving technology space-mining is looking like an increasingly legitimate concept.
With Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin aim to make space tourism a reality, technology has now made landing on an asteroid appear increasingly possible.
The SpaceX recent launch of the Falcon Heavy space shuttle and the successful return of two of its three boosters may indicate the possibility of carrying heavier payloads into space and could lower the costs of launches.
However, there’s a lack of legal clarity over the ownership of space resources, however, and laws presiding over space are largely ambiguous in general. In terms of the use of space resources, the area is fairly vague and can be interpreted in either direction. Governments and experts in the field are still debating over the appropriate uses of these resources and remains a difficult issue to tackle.
Still, more and more private companies are investing in technology to get people into space, and as NASA and other government-sponsored entities follow suit, those who understand what to do when we actually get there will be at a distinct advantage.
Even countries like the tiny European nation of Luxembourg, which some are calling the Silicon Valley of asteroid mining, have committed to spending at least $230 million to support asteroid mining companies in exchange that they set up offices in Luxembourg.
Furthermore, the very first program dedicated specifically for space resources is being launched at the Colorado School of Mines. The program will educate scientists, engineers and policy makers, offering three degrees: a certificate, a master’s and a Ph.D.
There’s plenty of money to be made with ventures such as these. NASA, for instance, aims to probe the asteroid 16 Psyche, located in the asteroid belt region between Mars and Jupiter. The iron extracted from the asteroid alone would be worth approximately $10,000 quadrillion. In comparison, all the money in circulation on earth is valued at $60 to $75 trillion.
The value of minerals from such space rocks will be so huge that experts have warned it could destroy the prices of commodities and cause the world’s economy to collapse.
“Many of the scarce metals and minerals on Earth are in near-infinite quantities in space. As access to these materials increases, not only will the cost of everything from microelectronics to energy storage be reduced, but new applications for these abundant elements will result in important and novel application”
– Peter Diamandis, co-founder of Washington-based Planetary Resources, Inc.
Even still, many prominent personalities from various fields have contributed funding and advice for the future of asteroid mining, including the likes of Google’s Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, Microsoft pioneer Charles Simonyi, filmmaker James Cameron, early Google investor Ram Shriram, and investor Ross Perot Jr. to name a few.
However, tackling the legal framework of property ownership of resources beyond our planet involves taking another look at the Outer Space Treaty (OST) of 1967, with asteroid mining seeming a possibility. The treaty, ratified by nearly 100 countries, prohibits any nation from staking claim over celestial bodies or using them for military operations.
To deal with this gap between treaty obligation in space resources rights, and the policies adopted in individual countries, the Hague International Space Resources Governance Working Group was formed by the International Institute of Air and Space Law in December 2014. The aim of the Working Group is to recommend a stringent space policy to the UN that takes into account space mining.
In September of last year, the Working Group began circulating a preliminary draft of the policy titled “Draft Building Blocks for the Development of an International Framework on Space Resource Activities”, for an international framework on space resource activities, and the laws that would govern them.
With so many private companies eager to get started on drilling into asteroids, the need of the hour is to adopt a revamped international policy that supports fair utilization of resources from asteroids.