Are resources fuelling a new space race?

Posted in: Emerging technologies, Global politics, Law, law enforcement and crime, Science and research policy

Dr Nuria Jordana-Mitjans is a Research Associate in the Department of Physics, University of Bath. She received a UKRI-EPSRC Impact Acceleration Account grant and was an intern at the Royal Society Emerging Technologies team (April to September 2022), with funding from the University of Bath. 

Space mining has been advocated by major national space agencies to bring sustainability to space activities with the in-situ use of water and minerals extracted from the Moon, asteroids and even recycled space junk.

Breaking free from the pull of Earth’s gravity has a high energetic and economic cost, significantly impacting the lifetime of space assets and the profitability of space commercial activities. Refuelling satellites and spacecrafts directly in space using extra-terrestrial water or building infrastructure and tools in orbit with minerals mined in space would be a game changer for space operations. Space mining could also shake up markets on Earth, as some private companies are driving initiatives to mine highly priced rare metals such as gold and platinum-group elements from ore-bearing asteroids. This “gold rush” has led to the rapid development of a largely unregulated space mining market.

An international flexible legal framework for space commercial activities is urgently needed. The current lack of international agreement on the ownership of resources and space security threatens to jeopardise space innovation, which will ultimately halt space commerce, access to extended mineral reserves and scientific opportunities.  A better management of common pool resources as well as a solid estimation of space resources will prove crucial for the space mining industry to thrive.

Space law

The current international legal framework governing space is centred around the Outer Space Treaty (OST) of 1967. With 112 state parties, the OST remains highly relevant as it sets the basis for the peaceful use of outer space and forbids any unilateral claim of sovereignty and appropriation of a celestial body. Yet, the OST left several legal voids. For example, it is ambiguous on new technologies, space settlements, and commercial space activities led by private actors and nations, such as lunar and asteroid mining.

To respond to these gaps, the United Nations proposed the Moon Treaty in 1979. However, so far, only 18 countries are parties to the treaty, not including any of the major space-faring powers. Controversy surrounding the Moon Treaty revolves primarily around Article 11, which states that “the Moon and its natural resources are the common heritage of mankind,” without providing much detail on appropriate governance arrangements. For countries like the US that are planning mining activities on the Moon — an economically risky activity under any circumstances — this creates additional uncertainty. By signing the Moon Treaty, they fear being bound to high taxation or even being denied ownership of the resources extracted.

In 2015, the US legalised space mining with the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act. This grants US citizens and industries the right to own and sell resources extracted from space. Following the US initiative, national space mining laws have been approved in Luxembourg, Japan, United Arab Emirates, China, India, and Russia. In 2020, Trump’s administration publicly renounced the Moon Treaty, and later that year announced the Artemis Accords, which detail “a shared vision for principles, grounded in the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, to create a safe and transparent environment which facilitates exploration, science, and commercial activities for all of humanity to enjoy”, and allow parties to claim resources extracted in outer space. Accepting the Artemis Accords is a prerequisite for participating in NASA’s just launched Artemis lunar program. To date, 21 partner countries (including the UK) have joined this US-led agreement. However, these bilateral accords have generated large criticism from Russia and China, who are now joining efforts for a lunar orbiter called the International Lunar Research Station — the equivalent of NASA’s Lunar Gateway.

International space regulations for innovation and safety

The space mining market is nascent, risky and rapidly changing. It requires an entirely new business model as space mining forecast plans are decades-long, and the life cycle of venture capital is usually one decade. To make a profit during that time, space mining companies need to sell their technology for other applications, such as propulsion systems for satellites, scanning sensors for Earth surveillance or 3D printing technologies for use on Earth. However, several factors are motivating the expansion of this sector, including minimal national regulations, targeted government strategies, global economic growth, innovation in autonomous robotics and the growing maturity of rocket technology (implying lower launch costs). In this fast-paced context, coordination groups such as the Moon Village Association and the United Nations Working Group on Space Resource Activities are working on a detailed peer-reviewed legal framework that aims to be internationally enforceable and would support commercial space activities.

To maximise the benefits of using space as well as mitigating negative scenarios, nations should aim for debate and multilateral consensus on:

  • Ownership of resources, as well as rights and responsibilities of all space actors with commercial interests. An international multilateral agreement on space commercial activities should lay the foundation for innovation to happen, as well as establishing procedures for conflict management in space. Non-partisan voices claim that the US approach goes against the principle of international cooperation and that the Artemis Accords cannot be considered an extension of the OST even if they gather enough signatories; that is, negotiations on space mining should be built in an international regime and go through the United Nations process. These concerns are grounded in the use of words such as “safety zones” and “avoid harmful interference” in the Artemis Accords, which if implemented, could establish exclusive economic zones and a new institutional body to protect the interests of those profiting from these zones.
  • Adaptable regulations that can deal with accelerated space innovation. Space mining is not a proven technology. Testing is needed for novel technologies such as biomining, robotic mining, refining in microgravity environments or efficient retrieval techniques for the resources extracted. This requires international and flexible protocols to allow innovation to happen, and at the same time, prevent accidents. In the short term, it is crucial to develop national capabilities for testing mining prototypes (among other space technologies) in artificial microgravity; ultimately, cheap access to orbital facilities will be required. Mining logistics — such as “where do we mine asteroids?” — demand debate and global consensus between space-active nations, private actors, and the scientific community.
  • Mining protocols for the management of debris. The production of anthropogenic debris can become a dangerous problem for the space industry, scientific facilities and eventually Earth. It has been discussed that the description of “safety zones” in the Artemis Accords grants space operators great benefits over the territory with no long-term obligations. Without international space mining protocols, activities on the Moon’s surface could easily make lunar dust migrate into operational orbits, making them not operational anymore.

International agreements on the use of outer space will ultimately benefit humanity by promoting sustainable space exploration and technological development. In the absence of such agreements, a new space mining race could give rise to further diplomatic tensions and conflicts, possibly halting investment and innovation on large scales.

Space mining requires economic (astro)geologists

To date, a major limiting factor for the space mining industry is the lack of solid estimates of water and mineral resources in space. As on Earth, mining in space requires exploration and prospection.

Remote observations and access to the Moon’s surface for scientific purposes have allowed the discovery of economically important resources such as hydrogen, helium, titanium, rare-earths elements and uranium, as well as water. However, we are yet to find lunar rocks with minerals in concentrations high enough to be classified as minable ore deposits per Earth standards. More promising estimates suggest that rocky asteroids could be sources of copper, and that fully metallic asteroids (if ever found) could be directly classified as ores given their expected high concentration of platinum-group elements, gold, nickel and cobalt. Furthermore, carbonaceous asteroids are believed to store more water than the Moon. However, a large fraction of asteroids remains undetected, a larger number have no estimates of their composition and only a few have been directly sampled by space missions.

The scientific community —in synergy with robotics— can provide the knowledge and tools to help with that. For example, improving the number of retrieved meteorites (and securing their trajectories) is important to assess the composition of their parent bodies, the asteroids. To remotely discover and characterise most asteroids, the use of larger dedicated telescopes will be needed. Ultimately, accurate compositional assessments will demand repeated in-situ analysis on a representative sample of the asteroid population. That can be achieved by developing domestic capabilities in terms of design, integration, and launch to lead numerous low-cost light CubeSat missions to candidate asteroids.

Eventually, when estimates of lunar and asteroidal resources become more solid, private companies will be more willing to invest money in space mining, and that will drive the required technological innovation. Then, pioneering mining companies will need to follow protocols — similar to terrestrial ones — to prove that those mineral resources exist by drilling, testing and processing samples with tested technology.

A symbiotic relationship between science and the space industry

Science can buttress economic development and guide business decisions. Conversely, a greater supply chain in space will allow more opportunities for scientists. Mining companies will benefit from the scientific exploratory surveys, and scientists will benefit from cheaper access to space (meaning an accelerated prototyping cycle), new enabling technologies and a vast sampling of solar system objects. While nowadays the samples retrieved are of the order of grams from asteroids and up to a few kilograms for some recovered meteorites, space mining will allow tons of lunar and asteroidal material to be brought back to Earth.

Governments should encourage crossovers between blue-skies research and industry for the benefit of both sectors. However, inconsistent methods for extracting resources given different national regulations will lead to great losses for the scientific community. Early international protection policies need to be implemented, such that space actors with commercial interests can account for them in their forecasting period, before innovation happens.

All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of the IPR, nor of the University of Bath.

Posted in: Emerging technologies, Global politics, Law, law enforcement and crime, Science and research policy


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