Governments, universities and private companies are all betting big on space mining – but how close to reality are their plans?
The brightest minds in space mining are dreaming of a future in which sophisticated human colonies will live on Mars, and robots will harvest rare metals from enormous asteroids to replenish our dwindling resources on Earth.
These ideas have been around in science-fiction for decades, but according to those with specialised knowledge, such ventures are tantalisingly close to reality.
“Commercial companies will begin asteroid mining in the next 10 to15 years,” says associate professor Serkan Saydam, a mining engineer at the University of New South Wales who focuses on new mining methods. “And we will be mining on Mars in the next two decades.”
The untapped wealth in our solar system is thought to be enormous: according to Wired magazine, a single asteroid called Davida – located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter – contains $US100 trillion ($131 trillion) worth of resources, including ammonia, nickel, iron and cobalt.
But before those materials can be accessed stakeholders need to trial the space-mining technology currently in development – and they plan to do so right above our heads.
“Right now, the main objective of the major groups is to extract water from nearby asteroids to generate energy for commercial satellites,” Saydam says.
Achieving this goal could greatly increase the lifespan of the satellites orbiting Earth and lay the groundwork for more sophisticated asteroid mining.
Big companies buy in
United States-based space-mining company Planetary Resources says it has already developed technology to make asteroid mining a reality.
“The Arkyd 6 spacecraft is scheduled to launch later this year to test the core technologies such as computing, avionics, navigation and mid-wave infrared sensors to detect water on asteroids,” the company’s vice-president of communications, Stacey Tearne, says. “This will put us on track to launch the first prospecting mission by 2020.”
Planetary Resources is a large and sophisticated operation with financial backing from Google founder Larry Page, Virgin founder Richard Branson and several large investor funds. Its main commercial rival, Deep Space Industries, has similar aims.
The companies are collaborating with academics like Saydam and with space agencies, hoping to innovate while government sentiment is positive.
Legal hurdles the biggest barrier
Obvious barriers to commercial asteroid mining are the cost – which is astronomical – and the technological progress still required to make it practically possible and economically viable.
Saydam admits that harvesting resources in space for use on Earth does not currently make economic sense.
“But if we create a market closer to where the asteroids are – say, on Mars – that’s a completely different story,” he says. “If we can sell the metal in space, that becomes very economical.”
Legal issues could be the biggest hurdle the industry needs to leap, though Tearne says regulatory frameworks for commercial activities in space are developing around the world.
The Guardian reported the US government’s attempt to update the law on space mining, producing a bill that allows companies to “possess, own, transport, use, and sell” extra-terrestrial resources without violating US law.
“The Luxembourg government recently announced its legal structure for space resources as well as a €25 million ($35.5 million) agreement of investment and grants with Planetary Resources,” Tearne says. “We’re excited to be working with the US and Luxembourg, the two nations leading in the space resources industry.”
The problem remains however that national laws violate the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST) – which decrees outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, “is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty”.
Australia adds value
Saydam, who is currently working on a collaborative research project with NASA, says Australian expertise will play a valuable role.
“Conventional mining in Australia is the best in the world in terms of productivity, automation and safety,” he says. “And research-wise, we are also the best.”