Mining in space

Materials World magazine
,
1 Mar 2018

Luxembourg has passed legislation to enable private companies to mine in space. Is it a fantasy worthy of science fiction or the future of the mining industry? Rhiannon Garth Jones investigates.

When the UN Outer Space Treaty (OST) was drafted and agreed in 1967, the primary concern of all parties was preventing the militarisation of space by the major world powers. The treaty focuses on ‘the moon and other celestial bodies’, prohibiting their use for weapons testing, military manoeuvres or the establishment of any type of military base, fortification or other installation. It did not consider mining those bodies. However, 50 years later, Luxembourg – wealthy, but hardly a major military power – introduced a law to rectify that oversight.

More than one science fiction film has followed the plot of intrepid humans exploring space to find new resources of some type to replenish the exhausted reserves on earth and save mankind. There is often the sense that space mining falls more into the area of sci-fi than reality. However, it is an area that is seeing increasing amounts of investment, financial and otherwise, as Luxembourg’s recent move demonstrates.

The intention is clear – to provide a legal framework to explore and exploit the resources in space. The first article of the recently passed legislation underlines that intention, stating that ‘space resources are capable of being appropriated’. The rest of the law establishes the procedures for authorising and supervising space exploration missions. Étienne Schneider, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Economy, told Materials World about the Grand-Duchy’s ambitions. ‘The legal and regulatory framework is a key action of an overall strategy to be implemented by the Luxembourg government within the SpaceResources.lu initiative, whose goal is to support the long-term economic development of new, innovative activities in the space industry.’

In addition, Luxembourg has ‘begun to support the R&D projects of some leading players in the space mining industry’, many of which, according to Schneider, have already set up their European operations in Luxembourg. Nor is it limiting work in this area to itself – a large part of the work being done, says Schneider, is ‘to promote international cooperation to progress on a future governance scheme and on a global regulatory framework of space resources utilisation’. Schneider adds, ‘The stake is global and other countries in the world need to join such an initiative to bring it forward. And the move has started. More and more countries are following the developments and show a concrete interest in collaborating.’

Serious, or sci-fi? 

According to Schneider, more than 100 companies have already shown an interest in moving to Luxembourg, with seven already settled. These include USA-based Deep Space Industries (DSI), which has previously spoken to Materials World about its work in this area (Materials World, April 2013) and Planetary Resources (PR). DSI is focusing on the extraction of nickel, iron, gold, platinum and silica, while PR is committed to identifying and extracting water resources in space and hopes to launch its first asteroid prospecting mission by 2020. 

As fantastical as it may seem, this is serious business. DSI has received funding from NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts to develop technology that slows spacecrafts carrying asteroid resources as they return to Earth’s orbit. PR is backed by billionaires Larry Page, Eric Schmidt, Ross Perot Jr and Charles Simonyi. Meanwhile, Tesla co-founder Elon Musk’s SpaceX, recently launched its first Falcon Heavy rocket into space that also carried a car atop. 

In addition, Luxembourg isn’t the only country to legislate in this area. The US SPACE Act of 2015 allows US citizens to ‘engage in the commercial exploration and exploitation of space resources including water and minerals’, while in the UK, a space industry bill is currently being considered by the House of Lords. Jo Johnson, the former UK Minister for Science, said it was intended to ensure that ‘the UK remains a leading player in the commercial space age by enabling satellite launch from UK spaceports’. Other states, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are also interested. The latter invested more than US$5bln in its space industry, for four satellites currently in orbit and future project. 

The nitty gritty

Although the location is more challenging, the actual process of mining an asteroid is the same as that for any new mine. The first step is identifying what asteroids contain –  and which are the desired materials that can be mined without damage to orbit. The right tools to extract the materials in the most efficient way must be assembled, and the infrastructure to transport the product put in place. In 2017, Goldman Sachs completed research on the viability of space mining and reported that, even with a radically different geographical setting, the technology exists to achieve all this, stating, ‘While the psychological barrier to mining asteroids is high, financial and technological barriers are far lower, prospecting probes can likely be built for tens of millions of dollars each, and Caltech University has suggested an asteroid-grabbing spacecraft could cost US$2.6bln.’

NASA is working on making asteroid mining technologically viable, launching a billion-dollar mission in September 2017 to mine materials from a 2,000-foot-wide asteroid called Bennu. The spacecraft is scheduled to approach the asteroid in 2018 and hopes to return to Earth, after extracting the materials, in 2020. 

NASA also holds an annual Robotic Mining Competition at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, USA, involving more than 50 college teams, 500 students and their mining robots from across the country. The aim of the competition is to create a robot capable of mining the precious icy regolith (gravel) on Mars, in order to ‘provide oxygen, water and fuel for future off-world colonists’.

How the products of asteroid mining are used is an interesting question. For instance, cobalt and platinum group metals could be brought back to earth and used in renewable energy, but less rare and valuable minerals and metals might be kept in space to supply the emerging on-orbit manufacturing economy with the raw materials it needs. Where asteroid-mined materials end up will depend on how much of a market is available for them and how much it shifts. If space mining takes off, then materials that were once earmarked to be brought back to earth might remain in space to support the industry there.

See the future

Paul Chodas, an asteroid expert at NASA, has expressed caution. The technology for space mining is there, he believes, but that doesn’t mean it’s viable. ‘It’s hard to determine which [asteroids] will have the most valuable minerals,’ Chodas said. ‘Is it worth the cost? We don’t know yet. There is simply more work to be done to determine whether space mining is profitable. But it’s promising.’ 

The speed at which asteroids travel – tens of thousands of miles per hour – makes it difficult to assess whether they are worth exploring. Much of the work currently being done is on determining which asteroids are worth the attempt. 

The Goldman Sachs report suggested that ‘space mining could be more realistic than perceived’. Noah Poponak, Senior Aerospace and Defense Equity Research Analyst for Goldman Sachs Research, says recent investments have reduced costs and spurred innovation in a variety of related industries.

One final concern is that the legislation passed by Luxembourg, the USA and other states, might contravene the space treaty, which says, ‘Outer space shall be free for exploration and use by all states,’ and ‘is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.’

However, Schneider explains that they consulted legal experts, under the leadership of the University of Luxembourg, before passing their legislation and had concluded that it would not conflict with the principles of the OST. 

Schneider says, ‘Although the legal status of the celestial bodies themselves is defined by said provision – namely that they are not subject to national appropriation – the status of the resources is not clearly described in the OST. Luxembourg’s law on the exploration and use of space resources addresses this and gives clarity on a national level, as a first step to enable space resources activities.’

The treaty primarily regulates individual governments in space, according to Joanne Gabrynowicz, Editor-in-Chief Emerita of the Journal of Space Law. The document is ambiguous when it comes to issues such as corporate spaceflight and multinational coalitions, leaving room for countries like Luxembourg to exploit with new legislation.

In 10 years, could mining asteroids seem as normal as offshore drilling? It certainly seems possible. 

Build your own robot

Cyclone Space Mining is a multi-disciplinary research group based at Iowa State University, USA, that has entered a robot every year to NASA’s Robotic Mining Competition. The President, Tyler Friesen, answered some questions about their findings over the years. 

What do you consider to be essential attributes of a Martian robot? 

An ideal Martian robot is very similar to robots on Earth. We want them to be able to withstand the harsh environment of extreme temperatures and wind speeds. Robots should be able to run with full autonomy and complete numerous tasks. A huge incentive to mining in space would be the ability to create new robots with new functions.

What attributes have you ruled out?

We don’t ever rule out attributes or ideas for more than a year. As a team of engineers, we have unique ideas that are only limited by cost and manufacturability. We have videos and analysis of previous years’ robots and take the best, and improve upon it, to replace or negate the issues. 

What do you think it would take to scale-up production of the robots?

To scale, our robots are about half of the size of typical Martian robots. Our smart phones and robots have more in common than we think. The ability to recharge themselves with renewable energy, and batteries that last longer, is important to how useful they are to us. It costs millions of dollars to send robots into space, so it is crucial that they last a long time. 

What do you think are the game-changing advances required to make space mining viable?

Autonomy is the most important advancement in space mining. We are extremely inefficient when we compare ourselves to robots, and it can take minutes to send one command because we are simply too far away. 

Is there any other aspect of space mining, particularly with regards to the recent legal developments in Luxembourg?

The long-term development of space exploration has changed significantly with companies in the private sector competing to make it to space and more countries developing space programmes to benefit the people of their country. We have no specific ties to Luxembourg but, as this world gets smaller, we are watching what they do and seeing how it affects us every day. 

What’s your type?

There are three main types of asteroids being considered for mining. 

  • C-type (carbonaceous) asteroids – these are mostly composed of carbon and could be mined for water, ammonia, methane and hydrogen. 
  • M-type (metal) asteroids – rare and mainly comprise nickel-iron, but might also be one of the richest sources of cobalt and platinum group metals. 
  • S-type (stony) asteroids – containing iron and magnesium ores, as well as titanium, iron and nickel.