Mining: It’s Not Just for Earth Anymore
Space travel is expensive. If humanity’s goal is to travel to further and further places, there is no doubt that governmental funding will not be enough. Private corporations will have to get more involved. And for that to be the case, they will have to have something to gain. The nickel ore, iron, and other precious metals found in asteroids could make for a trillion dollar market.
The Outer Space Treaty, signed in 1967 by over 100 countries, states that no country can own territory in space. But the United States is trying to create a law of its own.
On November 10th, the US Senate passed the Space Act 2015 that, among other things, will allow corporations to mine asteroids and other space objects and to profit from any resources they extract. The bill was amended to emphasize that the resources had to be abiotic — that is to say not alive — so any life forms out there are safe for now.
It is unclear whether the US had any legal right to give this sort of power to corporations since they, as a nation, cannot claim any ownership. If, and when, President Obama signs it, there may be backlash from the international community.
Mining in space will not be as straightforward as mining on Earth. Sending equipment is extremely expensive and using unmanned robots will complicate finding deposits. They cannot be simply dropped in one place and quickly explore distant areas.
However, the possibility is not as far-fetched as it may seem. Two American companies, Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources, are already making plans. And the latter launched a test vehicle, Arkyd 3 Reflight, into low Earth orbit in July with plans for another one by late 2015 or early 2016.
Arkyd 3 Reflight deploying from the ISS. Photo credit: NASA
One year ago, the European Space Agency successfully landed Philae on comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. This demonstrated that it would be possible to land more probes on other fast moving space objects.
A study by NexGen Space LLC found that mining hydrogen to produce cryogenic propellant on the Moon could help reduce the cost of building a permanent base on it by 90 percent. This could give Americans a reason to go back for the first time since 1972 or even make it a more conceivable destination for other space agencies. Furthermore, having a way to produce propellant in space could make it easier, less costly, and less risky to send humans to Mars. However, it would still cost $40 billion to establish the lunar colony in the first place.
Eric Anderson, co-founder and co-chairman of Planetary Resources, said in a press release, “Many years from now, we will view this pivotal moment in time as a major step toward humanity becoming a multiplanetary species.” The question now is “when?”