Mining has accompanied mankind since the dawn of time. In the coming years, we will have a chance to see another milestone in its development: space mining.

Visions versus reality

Space mining fires the imagination of writers and screenwriters. There are visions of resources struggle between countries, corporations and civilizations inhabiting other regions of the universe. It is also about the threat for humanity resulting from meeting with other living organisms. Another topic is finding extremely valuable minerals and other rare substances, often unknown on Earth, which can be obtained in space.

However, these visions are far form being a reality at this very moment. We are at the stage of cataloging space resources, e.g. geological maps of the Moon are being prepared [1] and asteroids are being observed [2]. Interestingly, there are helium-3 deposits on the Moon, which in the future may be used as fuel for nuclear fusion reactions. On the asteroid’s surface, we expect to find deposits of many valuable minerals, e.g. nickel, iron, cobalt, water, nitrogen, hydrogen and ammonia on the Ryugu asteroid. Our knowledge of mineral resources is based mainly on astronomical observations, much less often on direct analysis of rock samples from the surface, and incidentally on the analysis of subsurface rocks. We can only fully analyze objects that have fallen to the surface of the Earth. Therefore, we can expect to discover so much more in the future.

First steps

But what will the beginnings be like? Mining as an activity closely related to the economy will begin to develop to meet the market needs. In space, contrary to what we are used to on Earth, access to basic substances such as water can be  problematic. Water can be used directly by humans and also as a fuel, after the hydrolysis process. Therefore, the implementation of NASA’s plans for a manned expedition to Mars preceded by people’s presence on the Moon [3] will generate a demand for water on the Moon and in its vicinity. Another significant market for cosmic water can be satellites, as they need energy even for periodic correction of their trajectory. It is estimated that it will be more profitable to bring water from the Moon to low Earth orbit (LEO) than from Earth.

For these reasons, industrial extraction of water on the Moon is likely to be the first manifestation of space mining. How can it work in practice? Due to the intense ultraviolet radiation, ice on the Moon’s surface would have to be decomposed into oxygen and hydrogen, and the lack of an atmosphere would cause them to flee into space. Hence, ice is expected in places of a permanent shade, such as at the bottom of polar impact craters. One of the methods of obtaining it, is evaporation in a sealed and transparent tent. The energy could come from the Sun: it would be all about reflecting its rays off the mirrors located at the top of the crater rims. At the North Pole, you can find places where the Sun is shining almost all the time.

One of the first rocks obtained on the Moon is likely to be regolith (dust covering the surface of the Moon). It is possible that it contains traces of water. But what’s important, there is a chance to turn it into a 3D printer toner. This would allow for a quick and cheap construction of the buildings for a lunar base [4]. The buildings will have to protect against harmful cosmic radiation. Although regolith compared to other materials, is not very effective in shielding radiation (it requires a thick layer), it has an advantage – regolith does not need to be sourced from Earth. Overall, the widest possible use of indigenous resources is an important determinant of the success of projects which concern creating permanent extraterrestrial habitats.

Another direction in space mining development may be asteroids [5]. Catching smaller asteroids and bringing them back to Earth is also a possibility. Another option, is to bring an asteroid to the Earth’s or Moon’s orbit and then exploit it. It is also possible to exploit asteroids without interfering in their flight trajectory and only the spoil, perhaps after initial processing, can be delivered to the Earth.

Legal barriers

It is usually not taken into consideration that apart from the obvious technological and financial limitations, legal issues related to the commercial exploitation of space [8] may be a significant barrier. At present, the most important four international space laws are [6]:

  1. The Outer Space Treaty, 1967,
  2. Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts from 1968,
  3. The 1972 Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects, and
  4. The Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space, 1975.

They formulate the principle of freedom and non-exclusivity of outer space, treating cosmonauts as emissaries of humanity and assigning nationality to each object sent into space. In addition, they regulate the issues of damage liability caused by objects sent into space. However, they do not regulate economic issues related to the exploitation of space. Rules in the 1979 Lunar System are trying to fill the gap in this system. Although it is ratified by few countries (18), it aspires to create important customary norms in the outer space law. One of its statements is that the natural resources of the Moon are the common heritage of mankind, and that the surface and resources of the Moon may not become the property of anyone [9]. Rich countries are reluctant to these notes from the 1979 Lunar System, in particular the US has officially announced that they do not intend to follow those rules [7]. Could space mining be part of a cosmic variety of colonialism?