Space mining could become our biggest industry

The US wants companies to compete for space resources

If you’re a gamer then you probably have mixed feelings about space mining. It’s the boring task many games (hello EVE Online) will give to beginners to get them started. On the other hand, many gamers keep at it and reap huge rewards later as industry tycoons. Life imitates art and now we’re reaching a point where nations and private companies are itching to be among the first to strip asteroids of their precious resources.

We’re still learning exactly what resources we should expect to find on specific asteroids. Even so, the sheer quantity of resources makes them worthwhile. Asteroids can contain hundreds of tons of resources that are relatively rare on Earth. Platinum is a common example because it’s rare, sells for around £20,000 per kg, and individual asteroids likely hold billions of pounds worth of platinum. The value of a single asteroid could potentially dwarf the GDP of most countries. Nations and private companies are understandably keen to get their hands on extraterrestrial resources and become filthy rich.

All the spacefaring nations signed the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which stated that no nation could own a body in space such as a planet or asteroid. But what about their resources? It’s a grey area as scientific missions are already returning rocks from elsewhere in our solar system. For example, the moon rocks from NASA’s moon landings are classed as US property despite coming from a celestial body that belongs to the public.

When the 1967 treaty was drafted, people were concerned with potential conflict and wanted the treaty to be an act of peace between nations. Throughout history we’ve fought and killed over resources and it was feared that space mining could bring about conflict between nations, especially when the potential profits are so staggeringly high. Despite the Treaty, nations are beginning to lay down legal frameworks that fly in the face of efforts to keep space public.

Last November, US President Barack Obama signed the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, allowing any private companies in the US to own space resources if they find them. Just this week, the government of Luxembourg has announced that they will also be establishing a legal framework regarding ownership of space resources. Clearly they see Europe entering the space mining industry and hope to be a big part of it.

Common orbit types for near-Earth asteroids. Image © Planetary Resources

US companies like Planetary Resources intend to be among the first to extract resources from near-Earth objects (NEOs). According to the new Act they can claim ownership without even visiting an asteroid; all it takes is to detect metals. If you find it first, it’s yours. What’s worrying about this is that the US is giving private companies permission to own specific resources if they find them first, ignoring other nations. What if a non-US company wants it? Other nations don’t have to agree to last year’s Act signed in the US. Other nations may feel you have to land somewhere first in order to own it or they may prefer that space stay public. Ideally there should be an independent international body that sets the laws that other nations agree to.

There’s no doubt space mining is going to happen and likely very soon. Private companies might be mining asteroids before NASA has landed people on Mars. The optimist in me sees space mining as one of the greatest things humans will ever do as it can help us further explore the solar system. It’s hard to bring resources from Earth to distant worlds, so we need to start using resources elsewhere in space.

The cynic in me is acutely aware of resource-conflict throughout human history. Nations must come to an agreement over the legality of space mining before there are international incidents. Rivalries between nations, dubious laws, and potentially the biggest profits we’ve ever seen… What could possibly go wrong?

Main image © Dassault Systèmes