Hard rock minerals could be mined from an asteroid or a spent comet. Precious metals such as gold, silver, and platinum group metals could be transported back to Earth, while iron group metals and other common ones could be used for construction in space.
Difficulties include the high cost of spaceflight, unreliable identification of asteroids which are suitable for mining, and ore extraction challenges. Thus, terrestrial mining remains the only means of raw mineral acquisition used today. If space program funding, either public or private, dramatically increases, this situation may change as resources on Earth become increasingly scarce compared to demand and the full potentials of asteroid mining—and space exploration in general—are researched in greater detail.:47f
Based on known terrestrial reserves, and growing consumption in both developed and developing countries, key elements needed for modern industry and food production could be exhausted on Earth within 50 to 60 years. These include phosphorus, antimony, zinc, tin, lead, indium, silver, gold and copper. In response, it has been suggested that platinum, cobalt and other valuable elements from asteroids may be mined and sent to Earth for profit, used to build solar-power satellites and space habitats, and water processed from ice to refuel orbiting propellant depots.
Although asteroids and Earth accreted from the same starting materials, Earth's relatively stronger gravity pulled all heavy siderophilic (iron-loving) elements into its core during its molten youth more than four billion years ago. This left the crust depleted of such valuable elements until a rain of asteroid impacts re-infused the depleted crust with metals like gold, cobalt, iron, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, osmium, palladium, platinum, rhenium, rhodium, ruthenium and tungsten (some flow from core to surface does occur, e.g. at the Bushveld Igneous Complex, a famously rich source of platinum-group metals). Today, these metals are mined from Earth's crust, and they are essential for economic and technological progress. Hence, the geologic history of Earth may very well set the stage for a future of asteroid mining.
In 2006, the Keck Observatory announced that the binary Jupiter trojan 617 Patroclus, and possibly large numbers of other Jupiter trojans, are likely extinct comets and consist largely of water ice. Similarly, Jupiter-family comets, and possibly near-Earth asteroids that are extinct comets, might also provide water. The process of in-situ resource utilization—using materials native to space for propellant, thermal management, tankage, radiation shielding, and other high-mass components of space infrastructure—could lead to radical reductions in its cost. Although whether these cost reductions could be achieved, and if achieved would offset the enormous infrastructure investment required, is unknown.
Ice would satisfy one of two necessary conditions to enable "human expansion into the Solar System" (the ultimate goal for human space flight proposed by the 2009 "Augustine Commission" Review of United States Human Space Flight Plans Committee): physical sustainability and economic sustainability.
From the astrobiological perspective, asteroid prospecting could provide scientific data for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). Some astrophysicists have suggested that if advanced extraterrestrial civilizations employed asteroid mining long ago, the hallmarks of these activities might be detectable.
|Earth surface to LEO||8.0 km/s|
|LEO to near-Earth asteroid||5.5 km/s[note 1]|
|LEO to lunar surface||6.3 km/s|
|LEO to moons of Mars||8.0 km/s|
An important factor to consider in target selection is orbital economics, in particular the change in velocity (Δv) and travel time to and from the target. More of the extracted native material must be expended as propellant in higher Δv trajectories, thus less returned as payload. Direct Hohmann trajectories are faster than Hohmann trajectories assisted by planetary and/or lunar flybys, which in turn are faster than those of the Interplanetary Transport Network, but the reduction in transfer time comes at the cost of increased Δv requirements.
The Easily Recoverable Object (ERO) subclass of Near-Earth asteroids are considered likely candidates for early mining activity. Their low Δv makes them suitable for use in extracting construction materials for near-Earth space-based facilities, greatly reducing the economic cost of transporting supplies into Earth orbit.
The table above shows a comparison of Δv requirements for various missions. In terms of propulsion energy requirements, a mission to a near-Earth asteroid compares favorably to alternative mining missions.
An example of a potential target for an early asteroid mining expedition is 4660 Nereus, expected to be mainly enstatite. This body has a very low Δv compared to lifting materials from the surface of the Moon. However it would require a much longer round-trip to return the material.
Multiple types of asteroids have been identified but the three main types would include the C-type, S-type, and M-type asteroids:
- C-type asteroids have a high abundance of water which is not currently of use for mining but could be used in an exploration effort beyond the asteroid. Mission costs could be reduced by using the available water from the asteroid. C-type asteroids also have a lot of organic carbon, phosphorus, and other key ingredients for fertilizer which could be used to grow food.
- S-type asteroids carry little water but look more attractive because they contain numerous metals including: nickel, cobalt and more valuable metals such as gold, platinum and rhodium. A small 10-meter S-type asteroid contains about 650,000 kg (1,433,000 lb) of metal with 50 kg (110 lb) in the form of rare metals like platinum and gold.
- M-type asteroids are rare but contain up to 10 times more metal than S-types
A class of easily recoverable objects (EROs) was identified by a group of researchers in 2013. Twelve asteroids made up the initially identified group, all of which could be potentially mined with present-day rocket technology. Of 9,000 asteroids searched in the NEO database, these twelve could all be brought into an Earth-accessible orbit by changing their velocity by less than 500 meters per second (1,800 km/h; 1,100 mph). The dozen asteroids range in size from 2 to 20 meters (10 to 70 ft).
The B612 Foundation is a private nonprofit foundation with headquarters in the United States, dedicated to protecting Earth from asteroid strikes. As a non-governmental organization it has conducted two lines of related research to help detect asteroids that could one day strike Earth, and find the technological means to divert their path to avoid such collisions.
The foundation's 2013 goal was to design and build a privately financed asteroid-finding space telescope, Sentinel, hoping in 2013 to launch it in 2017–2018. The Sentinel's infrared telescope, once parked in an orbit similar to that of Venus, is designed to help identify threatening asteroids by cataloging 90% of those with diameters larger than 140 metres (460 ft), as well as surveying smaller Solar System objects.[needs update]
Data gathered by Sentinel was intended to be provided through an existing scientific data-sharing network that includes NASA and academic institutions such as the Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Given the satellite's telescopic accuracy, Sentinel's data may prove valuable for other possible future missions, such as asteroid mining.
There are three options for mining:
- Bring raw asteroidal material to Earth for use.
- Process it on-site to bring back only processed materials, and perhaps produce propellant for the return trip.
- Transport the asteroid to a safe orbit around the Moon or Earth or to the ISS. This can hypothetically allow for most materials to be used and not wasted.
Processing in situ for the purpose of extracting high-value minerals will reduce the energy requirements for transporting the materials, although the processing facilities must first be transported to the mining site. In situ mining will involve drilling boreholes and injecting hot fluid/gas and allow the useful material to react or melt with the solvent and extract the solute. Due to the weak gravitational fields of asteroids, any activities, like drilling, will cause large disturbances and form dust clouds. These might be confined by some dome or bubble barrier. Or else some means of rapidly dissipating any dust could be provided for.
Mining operations require special equipment to handle the extraction and processing of ore in outer space. The machinery will need to be anchored to the body, but once in place, the ore can be moved about more readily due to the lack of gravity. However, no techniques for refining ore in zero gravity currently exist. Docking with an asteroid might be performed using a harpoon-like process, where a projectile would penetrate the surface to serve as an anchor; then an attached cable would be used to winch the vehicle to the surface, if the asteroid is both penetrable and rigid enough for a harpoon to be effective.
Due to the distance from Earth to an asteroid selected for mining, the round-trip time for communications will be several minutes or more, except during occasional close approaches to Earth by near-Earth asteroids. Thus any mining equipment will either need to be highly automated, or a human presence will be needed nearby. Humans would also be useful for troubleshooting problems and for maintaining the equipment. On the other hand, multi-minute communications delays have not prevented the success of robotic exploration of Mars, and automated systems would be much less expensive to build and deploy.
Technology being developed by Planetary Resources to locate and harvest these asteroids has resulted in the plans for three different types of satellites:
- Arkyd Series 100 (the Leo Space telescope) is a less expensive instrument that will be used to find, analyze, and see what resources are available on nearby asteroids.
- Arkyd Series 200 (the Interceptor) Satellite that would actually land on the asteroid to get a closer analysis of the available resources.
- Arkyd Series 300 (Rendezvous Prospector) Satellite developed for research and finding resources deeper in space.
Technology being developed by Deep Space Industries to examine, sample, and harvest asteroids is divided into three families of spacecraft:
- FireFlies are triplets of nearly identical spacecraft in CubeSat form launched to different asteroids to rendezvous and examine them.
- DragonFlies also are launched in waves of three nearly identical spacecraft to gather small samples (5–10 kg) and return them to Earth for analysis.
- Harvestors voyage out to asteroids to gather hundreds of tons of material for return to high Earth orbit for processing.
Asteroid mining could potentially revolutionize space exploration.[original research?] The C-type asteroids' high abundance of water could be used to produce fuel by splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen. This would make space travel a more feasible option by lowering cost of fuel. While the cost of fuel is a relatively insignificant factor in the overall cost for low earth orbit manned space missions, storing it and the size of the craft become a much bigger factor for interplanetary missions. Typically 1 kg in orbit is equivalent to more than 10 kg on the ground (for a Falcon 9 1.0 it would need 250 tons of fuel to put 5 tons in GEO orbit or 10 tons in LEO). This limitation is a major factor in the difficulty of interplanetary missions as fuel becomes payload.
On some types of asteroids, material may be scraped off the surface using a scoop or auger, or for larger pieces, an "active grab." There is strong evidence that many asteroids consist of rubble piles, making this approach possible.
A mine can be dug into the asteroid, and the material extracted through the shaft. This requires precise knowledge to engineer accuracy of astro-location under the surface regolith and a transportation system to carry the desired ore to the processing facility.
For asteroids such as carbonaceous chondrites that contain hydrated minerals, water and other volatiles can be extracted simply by heating. A water extraction test in 2016 by Honeybee Robotics used asteroid regolith simulant developed by Deep Space Industries and the University of Central Florida to match the bulk mineralogy of a particular carbonaceous meteorite. Although the simulant was physically dry (i.e., it contained no water molecules adsorbed in the matrix of the rocky material), heating to about 510 °C released hydroxyl, which came out as substantial amounts of water vapor from the molecular structure of phyllosilicate clays and sulphur compounds. The vapor was condensed into liquid water filling the collection containers, demonstrating the feasibility of mining water from certain classes of physically dry asteroids.
Extraction using the Mond process
The nickel and iron of an iron rich asteroid could be extracted by the Mond process. This involves passing carbon monoxide over the asteroid at a temperature between 50 and 60 °C for nickel, higher for iron, and with high pressures and enclosed in materials that are resistant to the corrosive carbonyls. This forms the gases nickel tetracarbonyl and iron pentacarbonyl - then nickel and iron can be removed from the gas again at higher temperatures, perhaps in an attached printer, and platinum, gold etc. left as a residue.
A 1980 NASA study entitled Advanced Automation for Space Missions proposed a complex automated factory on the Moon that would work over several years to build 80% of a copy of itself, the other 20% being imported from Earth since those more complex parts (like computer chips) would require a vastly larger supply chain to produce. Exponential growth of factories over many years could refine large amounts of lunar (or asteroidal) regolith. Since 1980 there has been major progress in miniaturization, nanotechnology, materials science, and additive manufacturing, so it may be possible to achieve 100% "closure" with a reasonably small mass of hardware, although these technology advancements are themselves enabled on Earth by expansion of the supply chain so it needs further study. A NASA study in 2012 proposed a "bootstrapping" approach to establish an in-space supply chain with 100% closure, suggesting it could be achieved in only two to four decades with low annual cost. A study in 2016 again claimed it is possible to complete in just a few decades because of ongoing advances in robotics, and it argued it will provide benefits back to the Earth including economic growth, environmental protection, and provision of clean energy while also providing humanity protection against existential threats.
Proposed mining projects
On April 24, 2012 a plan was announced by billionaire entrepreneurs to mine asteroids for their resources. The company is called Planetary Resources and its founders include aerospace entrepreneurs Eric Anderson and Peter Diamandis. Advisers include film director and explorer James Cameron and investors include Google's chief executive Larry Page and its executive chairman Eric Schmidt. They also plan to create a fuel depot in space by 2020 by using water from asteroids, splitting it to liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen for rocket fuel. From there, it could be shipped to Earth orbit for refueling commercial satellites or spacecraft. The plan has been met with skepticism by some scientists, who do not see it as cost-effective, even though platinum is worth $32 per gram and gold $49 per gram as of September 2019. Platinum and gold are raw materials traded on terrestrial markets, and it is impossible to predict what prices either will command at the point in the future when resources from asteroids become available. For example, platinum traditionally is very valuable due to its use in both industrial and jewelry applications, but should future technologies make the internal combustion engine obsolete, the demand for platinum's use as the catalyst in catalytic converters may well decline and decrease the metal's long term demand. The ongoing NASA mission OSIRIS-REx, which is planned to return just a minimal amount (60 g; two ounces) of material but could get up to 2 kg from an asteroid to Earth, will cost about US$1 billion.
Planetary Resources says that, in order to be successful, it will need to develop technologies that bring the cost of space flight down. Planetary Resources also expects that the construction of "space infrastructure" will help to reduce long-term running costs. For example, fuel costs can be reduced by extracting water from asteroids and splitting to hydrogen using solar energy. In theory, hydrogen fuel mined from asteroids costs significantly less than fuel from Earth due to high costs of escaping Earth's gravity. If successful, investment in "space infrastructure" and economies of scale could reduce operational costs to levels significantly below NASA's ongoing (OSIRIS-REx) mission.[non-primary source needed] This investment would have to be amortized through the sale of commodities, delaying any return to investors. There are also some indications that Planetary Resources expects government to fund infrastructure development, as was exemplified by its recent request for $700,000 from NASA to fund the first of the telescopes described above.
Another similar venture, called Deep Space Industries, was started in 2013 by David Gump, who had founded other space companies. At the time, the company hoped to begin prospecting for asteroids suitable for mining by 2015 and by 2016 return asteroid samples to Earth. Deep Space Industries planned to begin mining asteroids by 2023.
At ISDC-San Diego 2013, Kepler Energy and Space Engineering (KESE, llc) also announced it was going to mine asteroids, using a simpler, more straightforward approach: KESE plans to use almost exclusively existing guidance, navigation and anchoring technologies from mostly successful missions like the Rosetta/Philae, Dawn, and Hayabusa, and current NASA Technology Transfer tooling to build and send a 4-module Automated Mining System (AMS) to a small asteroid with a simple digging tool to collect ≈40 tons of asteroid regolith and bring each of the four return modules back to low Earth orbit (LEO) by the end of the decade. Small asteroids are expected to be loose piles of rubble, therefore providing for easy extraction.
In September 2012, the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC) announced the Robotic Asteroid Prospector project, which will examine and evaluate the feasibility of asteroid mining in terms of means, methods, and systems.
Being the largest body in the asteroid belt, Ceres could become the main base and transport hub for future asteroid mining infrastructure, allowing mineral resources to be transported to Mars, the Moon, and Earth. Because of its small escape velocity combined with large amounts of water ice, it also could serve as a source of water, fuel, and oxygen for ships going through and beyond the asteroid belt. Transportation from Mars or the Moon to Ceres would be even more energy-efficient than transportation from Earth to the Moon.
According to the Asterank database, the following asteroids are considered the best targets for mining if maximum cost-effectiveness is to be achieved (last updated December 2018):
|Asteroid||Est. Value (US$billion)||Est. Profit (US$billion)||Composition|
|Ryugu||83||30||4.663||Nickel, iron, cobalt, water, nitrogen, hydrogen, ammonia|
|1989 ML||14||4||4.889||Nickel, iron, cobalt|
|Nereus||5||1||4.987||Nickel, iron, cobalt|
|Bennu||0.7||0.2||5.096||Iron, hydrogen, ammonia, nitrogen|
|Didymos||62||16||5.162||Nickel, iron, cobalt|
|2011 UW158||7||2||5.189||Platinum, nickel, iron, cobalt|
|Anteros||5,570||1,250||5.440||Magnesium silicate, aluminum, iron silicate|
|2001 CC21||147||30||5.636||Magnesium silicate, aluminum, iron silicate|
|1992 TC||84||17||5.648||Nickel, iron, cobalt|
|2001 SG10||3||0.5||5.880||Nickel, iron, cobalt|
|Psyche||27.67||1.78||-||Nickel, iron, cobalt, gold |
Currently, the quality of the ore and the consequent cost and mass of equipment required to extract it are unknown and can only be speculated. Some economic analyses indicate that the cost of returning asteroidal materials to Earth far outweighs their market value, and that asteroid mining will not attract private investment at current commodity prices and space transportation costs. Other studies suggest large profit by using solar power. Potential markets for materials can be identified and profit generated if extraction cost is brought down. For example, the delivery of multiple tonnes of water to low Earth orbit for rocket fuel preparation for space tourism could generate a significant profit if space tourism itself proves profitable.
In 1997 it was speculated that a relatively small metallic asteroid with a diameter of 1.6 km (1 mi) contains more than US$20 trillion worth of industrial and precious metals. A comparatively small M-type asteroid with a mean diameter of 1 km (0.62 mi) could contain more than two billion metric tons of iron–nickel ore, or two to three times the world production of 2004. The asteroid 16 Psyche is believed to contain 1.7×1019 kg of nickel–iron, which could supply the world production requirement for several million years. A small portion of the extracted material would also be precious metals.
Not all mined materials from asteroids would be cost-effective, especially for the potential return of economic amounts of material to Earth. For potential return to Earth, platinum is considered very rare in terrestrial geologic formations and therefore is potentially worth bringing some quantity for terrestrial use. Nickel, on the other hand, is quite abundant and being mined in many terrestrial locations, so the high cost of asteroid mining may not make it economically viable.
Although Planetary Resources indicated in 2012 that the platinum from a 30-meter-long (98 ft) asteroid could be worth US$25–50 billion, an economist remarked any outside source of precious metals could lower prices sufficiently to possibly doom the venture by rapidly increasing the available supply of such metals.
Development of an infrastructure for altering asteroid orbits could offer a large return on investment. Private companies like Planetoid Mines has developed ISRU equipment to mine and process minerals in space, and piggybacked a process to extract water and helium-3. Producing Curiosity class rovers, launching a satellite to LEO producing ZBLAN optical fiber, and developing space "tugs", they are building what NASA calls the "workhorse of the solar system" propulsion and are utilizing the mission parameters from NASA's Asteroid Redirect Mission by using a gravitational assist maneuver to redirect an asteroid to cislunar orbit mining. ISRU raw materials will be fabricated on-site for the manufacturing of building materials, landing pads, spaceports and spacecraft, and a moon base.
Scarcity is a fundamental economic problem of humans having seemingly unlimited wants in a world of limited resources. Since Earth's resources are not infinite, the relative abundance of asteroidal ore gives asteroid mining the potential to provide nearly unlimited resources, which would essentially eliminate scarcity for those materials.
The idea of exhausting resources is not new. In 1798, Thomas Malthus wrote, because resources are ultimately limited, the exponential growth in a population would result in falls in income per capita until poverty and starvation would result as a constricting factor on population. Malthus posited this 222 years ago, and no sign has yet emerged of the Malthus effect regarding raw materials.
- Proven reserves are deposits of mineral resources that are already discovered and known to be economically extractable under present or similar demand, price and other economic and technological conditions.
- Conditional reserves are discovered deposits that are not yet economically viable.
- Indicated reserves are less intensively measured deposits whose data is derived from surveys and geological projections. Hypothetical reserves and speculative resources make up this group of reserves.
- Inferred reserves are deposits that have been located but not yet exploited.
Continued development in asteroid mining techniques and technology will help to increase mineral discoveries. As the cost of extracting mineral resources, especially platinum group metals, on Earth rises, the cost of extracting the same resources from celestial bodies declines due to technological innovations around space exploration. The "substitution effect", i.e. the use of other materials for the functions now performed by platinum, would increase in strength as the cost of platinum increased. New supplies would also come to market in the form of jewelry and recycled electronic equipment from itinerant "we buy platinum" businesses like the "we buy gold" businesses that exist now.
Space ventures are high-risk, with long lead times and heavy capital investment, and that is no different for asteroid-mining projects. These types of ventures could be funded through private investment or through government investment. For a commercial venture it can be profitable as long as the revenue earned is greater than total costs (costs for extraction and costs for marketing). The costs involving an asteroid-mining venture have been estimated to be around US$100 billion in 1996.
There are six categories of cost considered for an asteroid mining venture:
- Research and development costs
- Exploration and prospecting costs
- Construction and infrastructure development costs
- Operational and engineering costs
- Environmental costs
- Time cost
Determining financial feasibility is best represented through net present value. One requirement needed for financial feasibility is a high return on investments estimating around 30%. Example calculation assumes for simplicity that the only valuable material on asteroids is platinum. On August 16, 2016 platinum was valued at $1157 per ounce or $37,000 per kilogram. At a price of $1,340, for a 10% return on investment, 173,400 kg (5,575,000 ozt) of platinum would have to be extracted for every 1,155,000 tons of asteroid ore. For a 50% return on investment 1,703,000 kg (54,750,000 ozt) of platinum would have to be extracted for every 11,350,000 tons of asteroid ore. This analysis assumes that doubling the supply of platinum to the market (5.13 million ounces in 2014) would have no effect on the price of platinum. A more realistic assumption is that increasing the supply by this amount would reduce the price 30–50%.
Hein et al. have specifically explored the case where platinum is brought from space to Earth and estimate that economically viable asteroid mining for this specific case would be rather challenging.
Decreases in the price of space access matter. The start of operational use of the low-cost-per-kilogram-in-orbit Falcon Heavy launch vehicle in 2018 is projected by astronomer Martin Elvis to have increased the extent of economically-minable near-Earth asteroids from hundreds to thousands. With the increased availability of several kilometers per second of delta-v that Falcon Heavy provides, it increases the number of NEAs accessible from 3 percent to around 45 percent.
Precedent for joint investment by multiple parties into a long-term venture to mine commodities may be found in the legal concept of a mining partnership, which exists in the state laws of multiple US states including California. In a mining parternship, "[Each] member of a mining partnership shares in the profits and losses thereof in the proportion which the interest or share he or she owns in the mine bears to the whole partnership capital or whole number of shares." 
Regulation and safety
Space law involves a specific set of international treaties, along with national statutory laws. The system and framework for international and domestic laws have emerged in part through the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs. The rules, terms and agreements that space law authorities consider to be part of the active body of international space law are the five international space treaties and five UN declarations. Approximately 100 nations and institutions were involved in negotiations. The space treaties cover many major issues such as arms control, non-appropriation of space, freedom of exploration, liability for damages, safety and rescue of astronauts and spacecraft, prevention of harmful interference with space activities and the environment, notification and registration of space activities, and the settlement of disputes. In exchange for assurances from the space power, the nonspacefaring nations acquiesced to U.S. and Soviet proposals to treat outer space as a commons (res communis) territory which belonged to no one state.
Asteroid mining in particular is covered by both international treaties—for example, the Outer Space Treaty—and national statutory laws—for example, specific legislative acts in the United States and Luxembourg.
Varying degrees of criticism exist regarding international space law. Some critics accept the Outer Space Treaty, but reject the Moon Agreement. The Outer Space Treaty allows private property rights for outer space natural resources once removed from the surface, subsurface or subsoil of the Moon and other celestial bodies in outer space. Thus, international space law is capable of managing newly emerging space mining activities, private space transportation, commercial spaceports and commercial space stations/habitats/settlements. Space mining involving the extraction and removal of natural resources from their natural location is allowable under the Outer Space Treaty. Once removed, those natural resources can be reduced to possession, sold, traded and explored or used for scientific purposes. International space law allows space mining, specifically the extraction of natural resources. It is generally understood within the space law authorities that extracting space resources is allowable, even by private companies for profit. However, international space law prohibits property rights over territories and outer space land.
Astrophysicists Carl Sagan and Steven J. Ostro raised the concern altering the trajectories of asteroids near Earth might pose a collision hazard threat. They concluded that orbit engineering has both opportunities and dangers: if controls instituted on orbit-manipulation technology were too tight, future spacefaring could be hampered, but if they were too loose, human civilization would be at risk.
The Outer Space Treaty
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After ten years of negotiations between nearly 100 nations, the Outer Space Treaty opened for signature on January 27, 1966. It entered into force as the constitution for outer space on October 10, 1967. The Outer Space Treaty was well received; it was ratified by ninety-six nations and signed by an additional twenty-seven states. The outcome has been that the basic foundation of international space law consists of five (arguably four) international space treaties, along with various written resolutions and declarations. The main international treaty is the Outer Space Treaty of 1967; it is generally viewed as the "Constitution" for outer space. By ratifying the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, ninety-eight nations agreed that outer space would belong to the "province of mankind", that all nations would have the freedom to "use" and "explore" outer space, and that both these provisions must be done in a way to "benefit all mankind". The province of mankind principle and the other key terms have not yet been specifically defined (Jasentuliyana, 1992). Critics have complained that the Outer Space Treaty is vague. Yet, international space law has worked well and has served space commercial industries and interests for many decades. The taking away and extraction of Moon rocks, for example, has been treated as being legally permissible.
The framers of Outer Space Treaty initially focused on solidifying broad terms first, with the intent to create more specific legal provisions later (Griffin, 1981: 733–734). This is why the members of the COPUOS later expanded the Outer Space Treaty norms by articulating more specific understandings which are found in the "three supplemental agreements" – the Rescue and Return Agreement of 1968, the Liability Convention of 1973, and the Registration Convention of 1976 (734).
Hobe (2007) explains that the Outer Space Treaty "explicitly and implicitly prohibits only the acquisition of territorial property rights" but extracting space resources is allowable. It is generally understood within the space law authorities that extracting space resources is allowable, even by private companies for profit. However, international space law prohibits property rights over territories and outer space land. Hobe further explains that there is no mention of “the question of the extraction of natural resources which means that such use is allowed under the Outer Space Treaty” (2007: 211). He also points out that there is an unsettled question regarding the division of benefits from outer space resources in accordance with Article, paragraph 1 of the Outer Space Treaty.
The Moon Agreement
The Moon Agreement was signed on December 18, 1979 as part of the United Nations Charter and it entered into force in 1984 after a five state ratification consensus procedure, agreed upon by the members of the United Nations Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS). As of September 2019, only 18 nations have signed or ratified the treaty. The other three outer space treaties experienced a high level of international cooperation in terms of signage and ratification, but the Moon Treaty went further than them, by defining the Common Heritage concept in more detail and by imposing specific obligations on the parties engaged in the exploration and/or exploitation of outer space. The Moon Treaty explicitly designates the Moon and its natural resources as part of the Common Heritage of Mankind.
The Article 11 establishes that lunar resources are "not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means." However, exploitation of resources is suggested to be allowed if it is "governed by an international regime" (Article 11.5), but the rules of such regime have not yet been established. S. Neil Hosenball, the NASA General Counsel and chief US negotiator for the Moon Treaty, cautioned in 2018 that negotiation of the rules of the international regime should be delayed until the feasibility of exploitation of lunar resources has been established.
The objection to the treaty by the spacefaring nations is held to be the requirement that extracted resources (and the technology used to that end) must be shared with other nations. The similar regime in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea is believed to impede the development of such industries on the seabed.
The United States, the Russian Federation, and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have neither signed, acceded to, nor ratified the Moon Agreement.
Legal regimes of some countries
Some nations are beginning to promulgate legal regimes for extraterrestrial resource extraction. For example, the United States "SPACE Act of 2015"—facilitating private development of space resources consistent with US international treaty obligations—passed the US House of Representatives in July 2015. In November 2015 it passed the United States Senate. On 25 November US-President Barack Obama signed the H.R.2262 – U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act into law. The law recognizes the right of U.S. citizens to own space resources they obtain and encourages the commercial exploration and utilization of resources from asteroids. According to the article § 51303 of the law:
A United States citizen engaged in commercial recovery of an asteroid resource or a space resource under this chapter shall be entitled to any asteroid resource or space resource obtained, including to possess, own, transport, use, and sell the asteroid resource or space resource obtained in accordance with applicable law, including the international obligations of the United States
- Americans should have the right to engage in commercial exploration, recovery, and use of resources in outer space
- the US does not view space as a "global commons"
- the US opposes the Moon Agreement
In February 2016, the Government of Luxembourg announced that it would attempt to "jump-start an industrial sector to mine asteroid resources in space" by, among other things, creating a "legal framework" and regulatory incentives for companies involved in the industry. By June 2016, it announced that it would "invest more than US$200 million in research, technology demonstration, and in the direct purchase of equity in companies relocating to Luxembourg." In 2017, it became the "first European country to pass a law conferring to companies the ownership of any resources they extract from space", and remained active in advancing space resource public policy in 2018.
A positive impact of asteroid mining has been conjectured as being an enabler of transferring industrial activities into space, such as energy generation. A quantitative analysis of the potential environmental benefits of water and platinum mining in space has been developed, where potentially large benefits could materialize, depending on the ratio of material mined in space and mass launched into space.
Ongoing and planned
- Hayabusa2 – ongoing JAXA asteroid sample return mission (arrived at the target in 2018)
- OSIRIS-REx – ongoing NASA asteroid sample return mission (launched in September 2016)
- Fobos-Grunt 2 – proposed Roskosmos sample return mission to Phobos (launch in 2024)
- VIPER rover — planned to prospect for lunar resources in 2022.
First successful missions by country:
|USA||ICE (1985)||NEAR (1997)||NEAR (2001)||Stardust (2006)|
|Japan||Suisei (1986)||Hayabusa (2005)||Hayabusa (2005)||Hayabusa (2010)|
|EU||ICE (1985)||Rosetta (2014)||Rosetta (2014)|
|Soviet Union||Vega 1 (1986)|
|China||Chang'e 2 (2012)|
The 1979 film Alien, directed by Ridley Scott, features the crew of the Nostromo, a commercially operated spaceship on a return trip to Earth hauling a refinery and 20 million tons of mineral ore mined from an asteroid.
C. J. Cherryh's 1991 novel, Heavy Time, focuses on the plight of asteroid miners in the Alliance-Union universe, while Moon is a 2009 British science fiction drama film depicting a lunar facility that mines the alternative fuel helium-3 needed to provide energy on Earth. It was notable for its realism and drama, winning several awards internationally.
In The Expanse series of novels, asteroid mining is a driving economic force behind the colonization of the solar system. Since huge energy input is required to escape planets' gravity, the novels imply that once space-based mining platforms are established, it will be more efficient to harvest natural resources (water, oxygen, building materials, etc.) from asteroids rather than lifting them out of Earth's gravity well.
Daniel Suarez's 2019 novel Delta-v describes how asteroid mining could be achieved with today's technology given a bold investment of an enormous amount of capital to construct a sufficiently large spacecraft with today's technology. Suarez also provides supporting material illustrating the proposed design of his spacecraft concept, at http://daniel-suarez.com/deltav_design.html
Artist's concept of an asteroid moved by a space tether
A future space telescope designed by Planetary Resources company to find asteroids
- Asteroid capture
- Asteroid Redirect Mission
- Deep Space Industries
- In situ resource utilization
- Lunar resources
- Mining the Sky: Untold Riches from the Asteroids, Comets, and Planets
- Near Earth Asteroid Prospector
- Planetary Resources Inc.
- Sample-return mission
- Space manufacturing
- Space-based economy
- World Is Not Enough (spacecraft propulsion)
- This is the average amount; asteroids with much lower delta-v exist.
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