Space resources in brief:
Recent technological advancements, a fast-moving private Space sector, and new domestic and international legal developments are bringing humanity much closer to mining in Outer Space. Mining on the lunar surface could provide us with the necessary resources and materials to expand humanity’s presence on the Moon, as well as further into the solar system. Mining asteroids could help us better understand the origins of our solar system and ultimately life on Earth. Knowing the composition of certain asteroids is also crucial for planetary defence initiatives. The prospect of Space mining does, however, raise many complex problems: How will Space mining be done in a sustainable way so that scientifically important materials are preserved? Will debris generated by Space mining threaten our satellites? How do we balance the rights of the international community with the economic interests of corporations and individual countries? How might Space mining develop, 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?
NASA’s Artemis Program seeks to land astronauts back on the Moon by 2024. Russia and China are planning to construct research stations on the lunar surface. States returning to the Moon have made it clear that in-situ resource utilization (ISRU), i.e. space mining, is necessary for achieving their ambitious goals; as a result, developments to enable the extraction, sale, and use of lunar regolith are underway.
International agreements are setting the initial framework for ISRU. In 2020, NASA negotiated the Artemis Accords, a non-binding political document establishing guiding principles for the development of the lunar surface, with eight of its partner states. The Accords include a contentious interpretation of the 1967 OST, with a clause stating that “the extraction of space resources does not inherently constitute national appropriation under Article II of the Outer Space Treaty.” Twelve countries, including Canada, have so far signed the Accords. Some individual countries have enacted their own national legislation concerning space resources, including: the U.S., Luxembourg, the United Arab Emirates, and Japan.
Russia and China have together signed a memorandum of understanding, encouraging cooperation between the two countries on the development of a lunar research station, separate from the US and its allies.
Public-private partnerships are fostering the development of ISRU technology. NASA contracted four private companies to collect samples of regolith from the Moon’s south pole. Once collected, ownership of the samples will be transferred to NASA in-situ as a move to kick-start space commerce and incentivize further investment in the development of ISRU technology. Additionally, NASA awarded SpaceX a $2.9 billion contract to build a human landing system that will carry astronauts to the lunar surface.
China has also made significant progress on the technological front with the success of their Chang’e 5 spacecraft, which extracted a four-pound sample of lunar regolith and returned it to Earth.
The sample-return missions underway by NASA and JAXA serve as technological demonstrations of the possibilities, challenges, and dangers when interacting with asteroids. Other teams planning to do the same in the near future, some of which are commercial actors, will learn greatly from these missions
Mining asteroids could also become a very real prospect decades from now. New sample and return technology, namely the probes deployed by JAXA and NASA, have extracted material from the asteroids Ryugu and Bennu, respectively, and are returning it to Earth. Meanwhile, commercial launch companies, such as SpaceX, are drastically lowering the cost of launching equipment into space, making it accessible to a wider range of actors.
Despite the declining investment into asteroid mining start-ups, some ambitious companies remain waiting for a future date when it becomes economically feasible. In the meantime, they undertake other space activities, such as operating Earth imaging satellites, to maintain revenue streams.
Mining space resources, such as the Moon and 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. Ice and water-bearing minerals 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. Studying material from asteroids may also prove to be vital in humanity’s defence against potential major impactors.
Despite its promise, space mining raises a number of complex issues, including, but by no means limited to:
- balancing the rights of the international community with the economic interests of corporations and individual countries
- establishing what ‘sustainable development’ looks like in the context of space resource extraction
- preserving the scientific and aesthetic value of celestial bodies
- minimizing exacerbating natural hazards or creating new ones
The OSI addressed many of these questions by holding and international, transdisciplinary workshop in early 2020. The adopted recommendations seek to guide international policy makers toward an equatable and sustainable approach to Space resource extraction. You can view them here.