Outside a world of limited resources exists an infinite realm of possibility for technological and energy-related innovation in outer space. Although it sounds like a term from extraterrestrial-themed cinema, asteroid mining is quickly becoming an exceptional opportunity for companies eyeing these mineral-packed rocks for resource excavation and profit. Since the dawn of space exploration in the mid-twentieth century, the space industry has remained limited to funding for observational and academic use. However, recent space law legal discussion and the inception of cheaper mission plans funded by private companies are quickly altering this trend. The new possibilities of privatized space travel render the potential for economic opportunity, at the same time unlocking a virtually limitless supply of energy for further space exploration. While asteroid mining poses immensely promising prospects for companies seeking cheaper energy sources to benefit industries on Earth and beyond, it also raises the legal issue of the non-binding nature of international law. In a world consistently plagued by outbreaks of violence from colonization in every generation, asteroid mining perhaps sets a precedent for what could lead to this century’s ultimate power grab.
Asteroid mining is a reality projected to take full effect within a matter of decades. Metals like nickel and iron could be processed and refined while in orbit and used to build equipment or spacecraft at a much cheaper price than on Earth, where every launch out of the atmosphere requires substantial funding (1). The chemical and mineral composition of asteroids varies, with some containing platinum-group metals and others being rich in highly valued metals (2). The extraction of minerals from space could be a cheap enough process to bring them back to Earth for manufacturing industries, eventually reducing the environmentally harmful effects of excavating minerals underneath ecosystems. According to Ian Crawford, professor of planetary science at Birkbeck, London, asteroid miners would likely start mining water-ice in asteroids, which can be broken down into hydrogen for fuel and oxygen for supporting life on far-off space surfaces like Mars (1). Once asteroid mining begins, the industry must make incremental technological progress before it can expect to become economically viable in a more widespread way. Once asteroids can offer resources to make fuel in space, though, the industry itself becomes much cheaper to support and evolve, especially into fields such as robotics and artificial intelligence (1). In the meantime, these private companies are optimistic that the industry is already heading in the direction of affordability. According to Planetary Resources President and CEO Chris Lewicki, “Small teams of people can now do what it used to take entire governments to do and what used to take billions of dollars now only takes millions of dollars” (6).
Two of the major companies that have emerged in this asteroid mining industry are Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries, two United States companies competing to be the first to commercially mine an asteroid. Planetary Resources is an asteroid mining company from Redmond, Washington, that aims to launch telescopes into space to analyze asteroids before crafts are sent out to mine them. The company, backed by Google co-founder Larry Page and billionaire businessman Ross Perot, is projected to operate in space as early as 2025 (1). Former Director of Space Policy for President Obama and current Vice President of Planetary Resources Peter Marquez noted the huge economic advantage of being able to excavate resources in space for extraterrestrial missions. “On Earth we sit at the bottom of a gravity well, and it takes enormous energy and expense to pull anything out into space,” he said. “About 10,000 dollars per pound [is needed] to break free of Earth’s gravity” (3). Conversely, one asteroid close to earth contains enough water to fuel all 135 space shuttle missions currently in orbit. Furthermore, iron, cobalt and nickel from asteroids can be converted into factory grade steel for much less than on Earth (3). Deep Space Industries claims it can launch all three of its Fireflies—small satellites that attach to rockets to search for minerals and ice—into space for $20 million by 2017. In comparison, NASA’s Osiris-Rex expedition aims to bring back two kilos of asteroid material by 2023; it is set to cost over $1 billion (1). Deep Space Industries also plans to send larger crafts for the harvest, transport, and storage of raw materials to be used in space and back on Earth. Both companies have lofty goals for the future, with Deep Space Industries CEO Daniel Faber asserting, “In 30 years’ time, the vision is to be building cities in space” (4).
Ongoing planning and deadlines for space missions have been bolstered recently by the Luxembourg government’s proclamation to be a European hub for futurist activity and stimulating economic growth through space exploration, intersecting the private and public sectors for increased probability of full materialization. According to the country’s deputy prime minister, Étienne Schneider, the aim is “to open access to a wealth of previously unexplored mineral resources, on lifeless rocks hurtling through space, without damaging natural habitats” (2). This conviction is backed by the partnership between Luxembourg’s SpaceResources.lu initiative and Planetary Resources, which hopes to synthesize both entities’ technologies and lines of business towards the full utilization of resources from asteroids (5). In fact, the government of Luxembourg made a direct capital investment in Planetary Resources Luxembourg of $227 million. This contribution will fund research of commercially viable near-Earth asteroids, as well as explore transformative technologies applicable to global markets in agriculture, oil and gas, water quality, and financial intelligence industries (5). Planetary Resources, backed by Luxembourg, is launching its next spacecraft, Arkyd-6, later this year and plans to obtain important data related to the presence of water and water-bearing minerals on asteroids via thermographic sensor (5). Luxembourg’s mission to spearhead a national effort of space exploration and asteroid mining poses a twofold implication. On the one hand, it demonstrates the potential for a country to profit off resources from outer space. On the other hand, Luxembourg’s goal may threaten the conservation of space as a nationless place of curiosity and respect.
Since 1967, outer space has remained void of claims to sovereignty, colonization, or profit. This remains one of the most pressing challenges for companies sponsoring asteroid mining, which needs regulations on stakes to claim these resource hub rocks hurtling through space. The Outer Space Treaty of that year was passed largely amidst Cold War hostility, when the “space race” between the Soviet Union and the United States demonstrated the technological capabilities of both powerhouses and, in turn, warned of the threat to world security if one or both entities were to proliferate in the event of war. The Outer Space Treaty (OST) decreed that outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, “is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty” (1). The stipulations of the treaty ban any forms of competitive economic activity over extraterrestrial resources and aims to ensure that space will never become a platform for a potential economic monopoly or worse, a war zone. Any sort of law passed to allow privatized missions to space would require the enforcement of mining rights through a national court exercising sovereign rights to contravene the OST (1). Thus, while the technological innovation for widespread asteroid mining looks promising, the legal barriers could create security conflict in the attempts of various entities backed by sovereign countries to bypass the treaty.
This lack of existing international, binding legal framework with space law has been partially mitigated by President Obama’s signing of the US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act. This law recognizes the right of US citizens to own the asteroid resources they obtain and encourages the commercial exploration of resources from asteroids (7). Like Luxembourg, the United States is stating its desire to promote the growth of its economy by expanding into the solar system. Marco Rubio, a Republican congressman from Florida, was integral in the legislative effort, as Florida houses both Cape Canaveral and a large space exploration community. The law discourages government barriers to the development of economically viable, safe, and stable industries for commercial exploration and recovery of space resources, which asteroid mining hopes to do. The problem with the updated US law to “possess, own, transport, use, and sell” extraterrestrial resources without violating national law is that it still violates the Outer Space Treaty, which was made to prevent exacerbating international conflicts like the ones found on Earth—the South China Sea conflict and tensions with China and Russia as of late, for example. The delicate balance that exists between Obama’s new law, which lacks much regulation, and the OST, which definitively prohibits privatized missions, could dive into a tailspin if enough competing companies enter the space realm for the same resources.
Planetary Resources CEO Chris Lewicki claims that the resources excavated from asteroid mining will give companies on Earth a “permanent foothold in space in the 21st century” (6). Co-founder and co-chairman Peter H. Diamandis remarks, “A hundred years from now, humanity will look at this period in time as the point in which we were able to establish a permanent foothold in space” (7). To what extent is this potential “permanent foothold” a security concern? The privatization of space mining, as with any other industry in the past, inevitably will lead to incidents of abuse and monopolization. In the past, economic exploitation has led to tensions and security concerns as people fight for limited resources in a land of unlimited wants. Every land or power grab in history has spawned both winners and losers, with both short and long-term effects. What happens when one company implements an expensive technology to bring an asteroid closer to Earth? In space, there is the caveat of virtually infinite resources, so long as companies and countries are able to continue evolving to make further space travel cheaper and quicker if asteroid resources around Earth were ever to start diminishing. Obama’s Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act lacks any regulatory measures to avoid such complications. J.L. Galache, astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, voices the ethical argument that “the solar system should be left pristine, like a national park or monument while others see it as resources to be used” (4). From this initial debate of conservation versus exploitation comes the secondary debate on how to regulate the different countries and companies vying for the same processes and technologies. In order for asteroid mining to have a productive and fair start, more binding regulations must be placed in the realm of international law to prevent the kinds of security concerns that erupt on Earth.
(1) Davies, Rob. "Asteroid Mining Could Be Space's New Frontier." The Guardian. The Guardian News and Media Limited, 6 Feb. 2016. Web. 23 Aug. 2016.
(2) Siddique, Haroon. "Luxembourg Aims to Be Big Player in Possible Asteroid Mining." The Guardian. The Guardian News and Media Limited, 3 Feb. 2016. Web. 24 Aug. 2016.
(3) Herkewitz, William. "The Biggest Barrier to Asteroid Mining Isn't Technical, It's Legal." Popular Mechanics. Hearst Communications, Inc., 16 Aug. 2016. Web. 24 Aug. 2016.
(4) Stirone, Shannon. "Where No Miner Has Gone Before." New Republic. New Republic, 23 Aug. 2016. Web. 2016.
(5) "Planetary Resources And The Government Of Luxembourg Partner To Advance The Space Resource Industry." Planetary Resources. Planetary Resources Media, 13 June 2016. Web. 28 Aug. 2016.
(6) Gorey, Colm. "How Asteroid Mining Could Be a Future Gold Rush." Silicon Republic. Silicon Republic, 15 Aug. 2016. Web. 29 Aug. 2016.
(7) "President Obama Signs Bill Recognizing Asteroid Resource Property Rights into Law." Planetary Resources. Planetary Resources Media, 25 Nov. 2015. Web. 23 Aug. 2016.
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