Space mining has recently become a very real prospect. Two separate probes have been deployed by JAXA and NASA to sample and return material from the asteroids Ryugu and Bennu, respectively. The establishment of well-funded ventures such as Planetary Resources, Inc., and the successes of SpaceX signal the rise of prominent commercial actors. The adoption of domestic legislation to provide a legal framework for commercial resource extraction is also being enacted, such as US legislation that accords US citizens the right to possess and sell space resources. Luxembourg has established a similar framework.
Mining space resources, such as asteroids, could greatly expand humanity’s knowledge about the origins of the solar system, the Earth, the abundance of water, and the origin of life. It could also provide knowledge about the composition and structure of asteroids that may prove to be vital in humanity's defence against potential major impactors. Ice and water-bearing minerals found in asteroids could be used to produce rocket fuel; fuel that, being sourced in space, will not need to be lifted – at great expense – out of Earth’s heavy gravity.
Despite its promise, space mining raises a number of complex issues, including
- How does one balance the rights of the international community against the economic interests of corporations and individual countries, especially in the context of Article II of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which prohibits the ‘national appropriation’ of the Moon and other celestial bodies?
- How does one engage in the ‘sustainable development’ of space to preserve the scientific and aesthetic value of celestial bodies such as asteroids, as well as any prebiotic materials and pristine mineralogy that may be present there?
- How does one engage in asteroid mining without creating risks to Earth and its satellites by altering the meteoroid environment or by changing the trajectories of potential impactors?
- What legal framework internationally should be developed to resolve disputes between nation states and disputes between nation states and private commercial interests?