Mining has accompanied mankind since the dawn of time. The coming years are likely to bring yet another milestone in its development: space mining.
Visions vs reality
Space mining has long fuelled the imagination of writers and screenwriters. They paint a picture of a struggle for resources between states, corporations and cultures inhabiting various regions of the universe. Some also speak of the risks faced by humanity due to possible encounters with other life forms. There is also the topic of extremely valuable minerals and other substances that are unknown on Earth but may be obtained in space.
At the moment, however, these visions are far from becoming a reality. We are in the process of cataloguing space resources, e.g. by making geological maps of the Moon  and observing asteroids . Interestingly, the Moon is known to contain deposits of helium-3, which could be used as fuel for nuclear fusion reactions in the future. We expect to find deposits of many valuable minerals on asteroids. For example, nickel, iron, cobalt, water, nitrogen, hydrogen and ammonia available on the asteroid Ryugu. Our knowledge of space mineral resources is based mainly on astronomical observations. Direct analysis of surface rock samples for this purpose is much rarer, and analysis of subsurface rocks takes place incidentally. We can only fully analyse objects that have fallen on the Earth’s surface. As such, we should expect many more surprises to come.
First steps in space mining
What will the beginnings look like? As an activity closely linked to the economy, mining will start to develop to meet the needs of the market. Contrary to what we are used to on Earth, access to even basic resources like water can prove problematic in space.
Water can be used directly by humans, and after hydrolysis, it can also serve as fuel. Thus, the implementation of NASA’s plans for a manned expedition to Mars, which will be preceded by human presence on the Moon, will result in a demand for water on and near the Moon. Yet another significant market for space water could be satellites. All the more so since estimations indicate that it will be more profitable to bring water from the Moon than from the Earth even into Low Earth Orbit (LEO).
For these reasons, industrial water extraction on the Moon has the potential to be the first manifestation of space mining. What could this look like in practice? Due to the intense ultraviolet radiation, any ice on the lunar surface would have decomposed into oxygen and hydrogen long ago. However, since the Moon lacks an atmosphere, these elements would inevitably escape into space. Ice is thus expected in permanently shaded areas, such as the bottoms of impact craters at the poles. One method of mining ice could be to evaporate it in a sealed and transparent tent. The energy could be sourced from the sun: one would only need to reflect sunlight using mirrors placed at the craters’ edges. At the North Pole, you can find places where the sun shines virtually all the time.
One of the first rocks to be harvested on the Moon is likely to be regolith. Regolith is the dust that covers the Moon’s surface) While regolith may contain trace amounts of water, it is mainly hoped that it could be used for 3D printing. This would make it possible to quickly and cheaply construct all the facilities of the planned lunar base. The facilities of such a base will need to protect humans against harmful cosmic radiation. And although regolith, compared to other materials, is not terribly efficient when used as radiation shielding (you need a thick layer of it), its advantage is that you do not need to ferry it from Earth.
Generally speaking, the ability to use local raw materials to the highest extent possible is an important factor in the success of space projects to create sustainable extraterrestrial habitats. Thus, optimising these processes is a key issue (click here to learn more about industry optimisation opportunities).
Another direction for space mining could be asteroids. Scientists are considering capturing smaller asteroids and bringing them back to Earth. It is also possible to bring both smaller and larger asteroids into orbit and mine them there. Yet another option is to mine asteroids without moving them. Then only deliver the excavated material, perhaps after initial processing, to Earth.
One usually overlooked issue is that apart from the obvious technological and financial constraints, the legal issues surrounding the commercial exploitation of space can prove to be a major barrier. As of today, the four most important international space regulations are as follows:
- 1967 Outer Space Treaty,
- 1968 Astronaut Rescue Agreement,
- 1972 Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects, and
- 1975 Convention on the Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space.
They formulate the principles of the freedom and non-exclusivity of space. Also, there is description about the treatment of astronauts as envoys of mankind and the attribution of nationality to every object sent into space. They also regulate the issue of liability for damage caused by objects sent into space. However, they do not regulate the economic matters related to space exploitation. This gap is partly filled by the 1979 Moon Agreement. Although few states have ratified it (18), it aspires to create important customary norms for the coverage of space by legal provisions.
Among other things, it stipulates that the Moon’s natural resources are the common heritage of mankind and that neither the surface nor the resources of the Moon may become anyone’s property. The world’s most affluent countries are reluctant to address its provisions. In particular, the US has officially announced that it does not intend to comply with the Agreement. Could it be that asteroid mining is set to become part of some kind of space colonialism?