The recent passage of the Space Act of 2015 in the U.S. House and Senate marks a key milestone for the commercial space industry. Ever since the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, nations have been banned from claiming or appropriating any celestial resource such as the Moon or another planet. Formally titled the “Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies,” the nearly fifty year old agreement has formed the basis of international space law ever since.
Now that’s about to change.
The 1967 treaty was signed at the height of the Cold War, during a time when the space race was in full swing and many people were rightly concerned about the militarization of space. The exigencies of the era demanded that we address the risk of nuclear weapons in space and reduce our chance of nuclear annihilation. Thoughts of a future era of commercial space mining were the farthest thing from most people’s thoughts.
Half a century later, however, technology has advanced considerably, creating many new opportunities including the commercial exploration and use of space. While claiming entire worlds is still off limits, as it probably should remain for a long time, the ability to mine and make use of materials from asteroids and other off-planet sources is finally being opened up. The legislation, called the “U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act,” calls for facilitating “commercial exploration for and commercial recovery of space resources by United States citizens.” If the President signs the Act into law, it means commercial ventures will finally be able to try and profit from space exploration—which will stimulate further development, innovation and exploration. In light of this policy shift it seems likely that other nations will quickly follow suit.
It’s been estimated that a single platinum-rich asteroid 90 feet in diameter could be worth as much as $50 billion. Though these are still early days, there’s considerable speculation that space mining could eventually become a multi-trillion dollar industry. While many of the key players have been hesitant to publicly state specific timetables, some indications have been given for when active space mining might be expected. A recent study sponsored by the Keck Institute for Space Studies determined that a 500 metric ton asteroid could be captured and delivered to high lunar orbit where it would be mined for resources by 2025. That study was co-authored by two members of the asteroid mining operation, Planetary Resources. Another space venture, Deep Space Industries (DSI) has said it is planning to use materials made from mined asteroids, including fuel, water, metals and alloys, for in-space manufacture by the 2020s. Currently, a number of these companies are in the process of testing equipment on earth and in orbit, as well as surveying, identifying and analyzing prospective target asteroids.
For a historical perspective, just imagine if in the 15th century, at the dawn of Europe’s Age of Discovery, the explorers and backers had been prohibited from profiting from exploration. Who would have been foolish enough to squander the money, lives and resources needed to travel to and explore the New World? While there was some degree of national prestige involved, few nations would have backed those voyages had their treasuries not been enriched by them.
Additionally, unlike half a millennium ago, we face the reality today of living on a planet with limited and diminishing resources, just at a time when demand for those resources is set to spike. It has been estimated that if the current population of our planet consumed resources at the same rate the population of the U.S. does, we would need four Earths to sustain everyone. While we can argue for reducing consumption and anticipate technological breakthroughs in the efficiency with which we use our resources, the math indicates this will be nowhere near close to enough. The ability to mine, recover and return to Earth with minerals and water from extraterrestrial sources could eventually go a long way toward addressing that shortfall.
The means and methods for recovering and benefiting from space-based resources varies. Certain minerals such as gold, platinum, silver, tungsten, iridium, osmium, palladium, rhenium, rhodium and ruthenium might be mined and transported to Earth for on-planet use. Other strategies could involve using mined minerals on-site for creating fuel and construction materials. Iron, nickel, aluminum, cobalt, manganese, molybdenum, titanium, hydrogen, ammonia, and oxygen might be returned to Earth orbit where they could be used for building ships and habitats and to help provide life support for astronauts. This would greatly stimulate our move into space since it remains so expensive to transport resources out of Earth’s vast gravity well.
Companies such as SpaceX, Planetary Resources, Orbital Sciences and Deep Space Industries all stand to benefit from this legislation as well they should, given all they are putting or propose to put on the line. But they will hardly be the only beneficiaries. The development of new industries will stimulate the national and global economy at a time when many types of work are rapidly disappearing. It will also make it possible for far more people to live at a standard that many in the west have long taken for granted.
Will this truly launch a new industry of space mining? Only time will tell. But as Eric Anderson, co-founder and co-chairman of Planetary Resources stated following Congressional passage of the Act, “Many years from now, we will view this pivotal moment in time as a major step toward humanity becoming a multi-planetary species. This legislation establishes the same supportive framework that created the great economies of history, and it will foster the sustained development of space.”