alex gilbert, is a complex systems researcher and a PhD student in space resources at the Colorado School of Mines.
Published April 26, 2021
Space exploration is back. after decades of disappointment, a combination of better technology, falling costs and a rush of competitive energy from the private sector has put space travel front and center. indeed, many analysts (even some with their feet on the ground) believe that commercial developments in the space industry may be on the cusp of starting the largest resource rush in history: mining on the Moon, Mars and asteroids.
While this may sound fantastical, some baby steps toward the goal have already been taken. Last year, NASA awarded contracts to four companies to extract small amounts of lunar regolith by 2024, effectively beginning the era of commercial space mining. Whether this proves to be the dawn of a gigantic adjunct to mining on earth — and more immediately, a key to unlocking cost-effective space travel — will turn on the answers to a host of questions ranging from what resources can be efficiently.
As every fan of science fiction knows, the resources of the solar system appear virtually unlimited compared to those on Earth. There are whole other planets, dozens of moons, thousands of massive asteroids and millions of small ones that doubtless contain humungous quantities of materials that are scarce and very valuable (back on Earth). Visionaries including Jeff Bezos imagine heavy industry moving to space and Earth becoming a residential area. However, as entrepreneurs look to harness the riches beyond the atmosphere, access to space resources remains tangled in the realities of economics and governance.
Start with the fact that space belongs to no country, complicating traditional methods of resource allocation, property rights and trade. With limited demand for materials in space itself and the need for huge amounts of energy to return materials to Earth, creating a viable industry will turn on major advances in technology, finance and business models.
That said, there’s no grass growing under potential pioneers’ feet. Potential economic, scientific and even security benefits underlie an emerging geopolitical competition to pursue space mining. The United States is rapidly emerging as a front-runner, in part due to its ambitious Artemis Program to lead a multinational consortium back to the Moon. But it is also a leader in creating a legal infrastructure for mineral exploitation. The United States has adopted the world’s first spaceresources law, recognizing the property rights of private companies and individuals to materials gathered in space.
However, the United States is hardly alone. Luxembourg and the United Arab Emirates (you read those right) are racing to codify space-resources laws of their own, hoping to attract investment to their entrepot nations with business-friendly legal frameworks. China reportedly views space-resource development as a national priority, part of a strategy to challenge U.S. economic and security primacy in space. Meanwhile, Russia, Japan, India and the European Space Agency all harbor space-mining ambitions of their own. Governing these emerging interests is an outdated treaty framework from the Cold War. Sooner rather than later, we’ll need new agreements to facilitate private investment and ensure international cooperation.
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What’s Out There
Back up for a moment. For the record, space is already being heavily exploited, because space resources include non-material assets such as orbital locations and abundant sunlight that enable satellites to provide services to Earth. Indeed, satellite-based telecommunications and global positioning systems have become indispensable infrastructure underpinning the modern economy. Mining space for materials, of course, is another matter.
In the past several decades, planetary science has confirmed what has long been suspected: celestial bodies are potential sources for dozens of natural materials that, in the right time and place, are incredibly valuable. Of these, water may be the most attractive in the near-term, because — with assistance from solar energy or nuclear fission — H2O can be split into hydrogen and oxygen to make rocket propellant, facilitating in-space refueling. So-called “rare earth” metals are also potential targets of asteroid miners intending to service Earth markets. Consisting of 17 elements, including lanthanum, neodymium, and yttrium, these critical materials (most of which are today mined in China at great environmental cost) are required for electronics. And they loom as bottlenecks in making the transition from fossil fuels to renewables backed up by battery storage.
The Moon is a prime space mining target. Boosted by NASA’s mining solicitation, it is likely the first location for commercial mining. The Moon has several advantages. It is relatively close, requiring a journey of only several days by rocket and creating communication lags of only a couple seconds — a delay small enough to allow remote operation of robots from Earth. Its low gravity implies that relatively little energy expenditure will be needed to deliver mined resources to Earth orbit.
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The Moon may look parched — and by comparison to Earth, it is. But recent probes have confirmed substantial amounts of water ice lurking in permanently shadowed craters at the lunar poles. Further, it seems that solar winds have implanted significant deposits of helium-3 (a light stable isotope of helium) across the equatorial regions of the Moon. Helium-3 is a potential fuel source for secondand third-generation fusion reactors that one hopes will be in service later in the century. The isotope is packed with energy (admittedly hard to unleash in a controlled manner) that might augment sunlight as a source of clean, safe energy on Earth or to power fast spaceships in this century. Between its water and helium-3 deposits, the Moon could be the resource stepping-stone for further solar system exploration.
Asteroids are another near-term mining target. There are all sorts of space rocks hurtling through the solar system, with varying amounts of water, rare earth metals and other materials on board. The asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter contains most of them, many of which are greater than a kilometer in diameter. Although the potential water and mineral wealth of the asteroid belt is vast, the long distance from Earth and requisite travel times and energy consumption rule them out as targets in the near term.
Even the surface of celestial bodies pose a challenge to mining machinery since they consist of unconsolidated rocky materials called regolith instead of more familiar soil.
Wannabe asteroid miners will thus be looking at smaller near-Earth asteroids. While they are much further away than the Moon, many of them could be reached using less energy — and some are even small enough to make it technically possible to tow them to Earth orbit for mining.
Space mining may be essential to crewed exploration missions to Mars. Given the distance and relatively high gravity of Mars (twice that of the Moon), extraction and export of minerals to Earth seems highly unlikely. Rather, most resource extraction on Mars will focus on providing materials to supply exploration missions, refuel spacecraft and enable settlement.
Technology Is the Difference
The prospects for space mining are being driven by technological advances across the space industry. The rise of reusable rocket components and the now-widespread use of off-the-shelf parts are lowering both launch and operations costs. Once limited to government contract missions and the delivery of telecom satellites to orbit, private firms are now emerging as leaders in developing “NewSpace” activities — a catch-all term for endeavors including orbital tourism, orbital manufacturing and mini-satellites providing specialized services. The space sector, with a market capitalization of $400 billion, could grow to as much as $1 trillion by 2040 as private investment soars.
But despite the high-profile commercial advances, governments still call the shots on the leading edge of space resource technologies. The United States extracted the first extraterrestrial materials in space from the Moon during the Apollo missions, followed by the Soviet Union’s recoveries from crewless Luna missions. President Biden recently borrowed one of the Apollo lunar rocks for display in the Oval Office, highlighting the awe that deep space can still summon.
For the time being, scientific samples remain the goal of mining. Last October, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission — due to return to Earth in 2023 — collected a small amount of material from the asteroid Bennu. In December, Japan returned a sample of the asteroid Ryugu with the Hayabusa2 spacecraft. And several weeks later, China’s Chang’e 5 mission returned the first lunar samples since the 1970s.
ESA/ Cover Images
Sample collection is accelerating, with recent missions targeting Mars. Japan is planning to visit the two moons of Mars and extract a sample from one. NASA’s robotic Perseverance rover will collect and cache drilled samples on Mars that could later be returned to Earth. Perseverance also carries gear for the unique MOXIE experiment on Mars — an attempt to produce oxygen on the planet with technologies that could eventually extract oxygen for astronauts to breath and refuel spacecraft.
To be viable, commercial space mining will, of course, have to operate at a much larger scale than the scientific digs. Whereas all samples collected to date consist of less than one ton of material, a single space mining operation would have to be able to manage hundreds or thousands of tons.
Stripped to the basics, the stages of a space mining operation resemble those of terrestrial mining, with prospecting followed by extraction, processing and distribution to users. But the unique conditions of outer space environments make this progression far more daunting. Most space mining targets have little or no atmosphere and experience extreme temperature swings between shade and sunlight. Radiation, from both the sun and cosmic sources, permeates the space environment and threatens electronics — not to mention human health.
The most basic technologies needed for space mining are as simple as shovels and drills. But water and other materials that are volatile will have to be extracted using more exotic techniques.
The list of challenges goes on. Launching to space is a stressful process, and equipment must survive high acceleration and acoustic forces. Due to orbital mechanics and the immense energies required to navigate large distances, all space missions are limited to minimal payloads. Missions in deep space operate in microgravity — a challenge when mining an asteroid — or reduced gravity on the Moon or Mars. Even the surfaces of celestial bodies pose a challenge to mining machinery, since they consist of unconsolidated rocky materials called regolith instead of more familiar soil.
The most basic technologies needed for space mining are as simple as shovels and drills. But water and other materials that are volatile can be extracted using more exotic techniques: on the Moon, thermal mining would sublimate ice directly to vapor and trap it in a tent. One of the space mining startups, Transastra, proposes a similar method on a far grander scale for small asteroids, trapping the volatile resource in a bag surrounding the whole body.
Remember, too, that after space resources are gathered, a supply chain must deliver the material to customers. If you’re curious about the details, check out a 2018 report, Commercial Lunar Propellant Architecture, which describes a mining cycle to extract water on the Moon, convert it to fuel and deliver it to customer spacecraft.
Before committing billions to the real thing, public and private investors will need to spend millions testing plans in environments that resemble the conditions of outer space. Regolith simulants, vacuum chambers, computer modeling and other aerospace testing equipment are all needed to verify mining technologies can work in space. Beyond space technologies, advances in other sectors could aid space mining missions. Among them: additive manufacturing (3D printing) to support base construction, AI to run robots and even nuclear power reactors to provide large amounts of energy.
The Economics of Mining the Cosmos
Claims about the economic value of space mining are often nine parts hyperbole. Newspaper headlines point to asteroids like 16 Psyche, a 226-kilometer-diameter rock whose iron and nickel resources are estimated to be worth $10 quintillion dollars at current commodity prices (100,000 times the size of the Earth’s GDP).
But setting aside the blarney, there really is gold (water? helium-3? praseodymium?) in them thar hills. Neil DeGrasse Tyson famously predicted that the world’s first trillionaire will be a space miner. Great minds seem to agree: many of the major private players in space (a group that includes Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Richard Branson) are billionaires prepared to risk a whole lot of money to add a few more zeros to their net worth.
That said, a common joke in this new industry (as in many others) is that the best way to become a millionaire in space is to start as a billionaire. Even with recent commercial advances, the cost of putting a payload into space remains very high, and the elasticity of demand for space-mined resources is uncertain. A chicken-egg problem underlies all NewSpace activities, but especially mining: without space miners supplying materials, there will be no customers. But without customers, there is no incentive to mine.
Even NASA’s solicitation for four companies to extract lunar regolith on the Moon and sell samples to the agency underscores the nascent nature of mining: NASA is paying no more than $15,000 for a half-kilo, a fraction of a fraction of the cost of such a mission. Large asteroid valuations, like that of 16 Psyche, also do not reflect market realities, since delivering large quantities of expensive commodities like platinum or gold would crash market prices. Markets for such metals are small on a mass basis, and it is not clear that Earth markets provide sufficient demand to support enough space mining to Second Quarter 2021 55 justify the fixed costs of production.
In broad terms, the uses of space resources can be broken into two categories: return to Earth or use in space. Early startups, like Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries, focused on mining metals with the goal of selling them back on Earth. However, the market uncertainty was a major factor in the decline of both industry leaders.
In the long term, production in space to supply Earth could drive massive growth in the space industry — but not with commodities competing with terrestrial production. Rather, Earth markets are likely to be most receptive to the exotic: specialized materials and alloys manufactured in microgravity conditions, large-satellite services such as space-based solar power, or unique products like helium-3. The latter two are particularly promising, as they could provide large contributions to global decarbonization after 2050.
In the near term, what’s found in space will stay in space. The support of crewed and robotic exploration with on-site resource utilization — plausibly, on the Moon in the 2020s and Mars in the 2030s — has the greatest promise to jumpstart space mining. Construction of Moon bases from local materials could greatly reduce mass requirements. If water-derived propellant is developed at a competitive price, it could find a ready market in spacecraft heading from low-earth orbit to geosynchronous orbit or deep space.
Of course, questions about the economic value of space resources assume that property rights are well-defined and assured. Space law on property rights is developing quickly. But many questions remain, exacerbating economic uncertainties.
Aspects of the accords exclude major space players like Russia, China and India. They provide for “safety zones” around mining sites, raising fears about exclusion of other countries from prime locations.
You’re Stepping On My Regolith
As human industrial activity spreads into the high frontier, disputes over ownership and governance follow. Outer space is beyond the territorial jurisdiction of any nation, meaning international law is the basis for space law and space-resources law. The primary governing treaty for international space law, the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, prohibits appropriation of celestial bodies, such as the Moon or asteroids, by individual nations. Whether space mining is allowed under the treaty remains highly contentious.
Drafted at the height of the Cold War to head off an arms race in space and a “land” rush, the Outer Space Treaty did not envision the private and commercial ventures of today. The non-appropriation clause prevents nations from claiming celestial bodies by planting a flag or by occupying an area. However, it does not clearly prohibit owning and using resources once they are extracted from a celestial body. Indeed, other parts of the treaty imply that such use is allowed.
Past and ongoing missions by the United States, the Soviet Union, Japan and China to acquire scientific samples have never been seriously challenged as violating the treaty. A second international treaty that would explicitly establish global governance of commercial space mining, the Moon Agreement, has been broadly rejected by most countries — and all countries with the means and motive to mine in space.
The United States has long held that the Outer Space Treaty permits commercial resource extraction. It is taking a leading role in establishing space mining as allowed under both national and international law. Recognizing the ambitions of Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries (two startups with big plans), in 2015 Congress passed and President Obama signed the world’s first national space-resources law.
The law recognized the rights of U.S. residents to own materials gathered in outer space, but does not claim U.S. or private ownership of celestial bodies. Although now guaranteeing property rights, the United States has yet to establish a clear regulatory system to authorize such missions.
The Trump administration built on these early activities by including space mining as part of its broader prioritization of space exploration, and specifically by supporting a plan to return astronauts to the Moon with the Artemis Program. An April 2020 Executive Order reiterated the U.S. commitment to space-resources-development property rights, repeated the U.S. rejection of the Moon Agreement and solicited international cooperation. Other administration activities bolstered the foundation for space mining, including national policies on planetary protection and space nuclear power.
Other nations are following the U.S. lead in developing space-resources law and policy. As noted earlier, Luxembourg has passed a space mining law of its own, prioritizing space resources and forming partnerships with space agencies worldwide. The United Arab Emirates is moving toward a similar law, as the country looks to space as part of the oil-drenched state’s modernization plans. As Japan continues scientific sampling missions, its government is currently considering a space mining law of its own.
The nature of China’s space ambitions isn’t easy to decipher, but space mining and lunar exploration are clearly part of the strategy. Indeed, many U.S. advocates of space mining point to Chinese ambitions as a reason for the United States to get out ahead of the pack of liberal democracies with space capabilities.
The ungoverned nature of outer space and lack of national ownership plainly create the possibility of conflict. Even if companies have rights to own a resource when they extract it, they do not necessarily have rights to a resource while it remains in place. If two companies from different nations want to mine the same area, both technically have the right to do so. “First come, first serve” may work for one nation’s activities, but nothing prevents ventures from another country building adjacent mines, with attendant economic and operational risks. The international nature of space exacerbates the lack of ownership, as disputes between companies from separate countries become a matter of international relations.
To begin addressing these challenges, the United States negotiated the Artemis Accords in 2020, a multilateral agreement to guide near-term lunar exploration. Signatories of the accords include many U.S. space partners: the United Kingdom, Luxembourg, UAE, Australia, Canada, Japan, Italy and Ukraine. Much of the accords are natural extensions of the Outer Space Treaty and are a welcome development. For example, one provision provides for interoperability between different nations’ space technologies.
But other aspects of the accords are problematic. They currently exclude major space players like Russia, China and India. They provide for “safety zones” around mining sites, which raises fears about exclusion of other countries from prime locations and de facto national appropriation.
The number one environmental threat to crew and satellite safety in low-earth orbit is not the harsh conditions of outer space but rather space debris from decades of lightly regulated space activities.
Beyond questions of resource governance, environmental problems are emerging due to NewSpace activities. The number one environmental threat to crew and satellite safety in low-earth orbit is not the harsh conditions of outer space, but rather space debris from decades of lightly regulated space activities. A growing population of space junk and the rise of satellite mega-constellations, like SpaceX’s Starlink, are increasingly crowding orbits and threatening collisions. Mega-constellations are also negatively impacting astronomy by adding light pollution. Lunar pollution may not be far behind.
Here’s another headache in the making. In 2019, the non-profit Arch Mission Foundation smuggled a cargo of tardigrades — tiny animals that can survive extreme environments — to the Moon without regulatory approval, raising planetary protection concerns among astrobiologists. These early space environmental issues, and their lack of clear policy resolution, are early harbingers of environmental disputes in outer space.
The environmental impacts of space mining activities remain speculative, but they could undermine the safety of crewed and robotic missions. The Apollo missions revealed that landing or launching from the Moon can spew large amounts of lunar regolith long distances, perhaps even into lunar orbit. Regolith is coarse and, without a lunar atmosphere to slow it down or break it up, ejected regolith could damage distant spacecraft. Mining activities themselves could similarly cause regolith dust issues.
More broadly, mining activities could cause contamination of local areas of interest, impacting scientific value. With proposals to conduct space mining with bacteria, the tardigrade incident raises questions about how commercial activities might complicate the search for life or even threaten fragile extraterrestrial systems with human-delivered invasive species.
Solutions are emerging. In December 2020, the U.S. took a leading role with Congress’ passage of the “One Small Step to Protect Human Heritage in Space Act.” The bill provides initial protections to Apollo and lunar heritage sites, a framework for future environmental and social protections.
The Century of Space Mining?
Although uncertainties remain high, sooner or later space mining promises to greatly accelerate space exploration and bolster terrestrial economies. While industrial activities in space may well cause conflict with scientific priorities, the infrastructure created in its development could serve science with orbital refueling, reduced mission costs, space manufacturing and, more generally, deeper knowledge of how to operate in space environments.
There will no doubt be plenty of slips twixt cup and lip. But while, just a few decades ago, it was easy to dismiss the idea of space industry in general and space mining in particular as the stuff of science fiction, the worm has definitely turned. Today, it is pretty clear that space mining — along with its attendant exploration and industrialization — is coming soon.