Most of us have seen the movie Armageddon, where oil driller/space cowboy Bruce Willis takes a crew into the hostile expanses of space in order to drill into an asteroid and blow it up from the core to save earth (reality of the insane amounts of smaller pieces that would likely have killed everyone on earth aside). We all may have considered the implications of such a concept in the future, but likely just stayed on the subject of survival, skimming over the whole drilling into an asteroid aspect of this, and the quantity of resources we could potentially gain if we looked at this from a commercial application.
Would Space Minning Be Worth It?
Launching a rocket into space is incredibly expensive as a result of the cost of each additional lb (or kilogram if your country has never walked on the moon) into space. The current rough estimate, which vary from one spacecraft the next is $10,000 per lb of cargo, food or water we blast from our little blue dot into the endless darkness of space. We obviously need water to live, and the moon itself has an estimated 600 million tons available to be mined off the sweet water we need for survival. This makes it incredibly attractive for that exact scenario.
Even more enticing for earthly applications are the benefits of mining asteroids. If we look at specifically water and platinum group metals (noble metals), the current estimation for the most expensive asteroid is worth $100 trillion (yes you read that right, it isn’t a typo). With a profit estimate after mining, returning the metals and refining them on earth around $10 trillion. Obviously, supply and demand would drastically reduce the value assumptions above, but the reality is, if executed correctly, this would be a world changing sum of money and materials. Another consideration is the increased need for rare earth metals which are needed for all our valuable electronics. China currently produces 97% of our world’s supply, and as we covered in a previous article concerning tariffs, this could lead to global instability if they decided to ration that supply for political reasons.
That’s a Long Way Off, Isn’t It?
The mining of asteroids may be out of our current technological grasp, but it not that far off. Especially where mining for water on the moon is concerned, this is quickly becoming a reality. The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has recently announced their intentions to join a multi-country effort to do just that. At the very least, this portion of space mining will be a reality soon.
The Legality of Minning In Space
The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 covered a lot of topics, but at the time was focused on preventing nuclear weapons from being utilized in space, with particular concerns at the time of a satellite type launch system capable of striking anywhere on the planet. It explicitly denied countries the ability to make sovereign claims on celestial bodies, but mining for resources has a little more ambiguity. Article 1 of the treaty states,
“The exploration and use of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development, and shall be the province of all mankind.
Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall be free for exploration and use by all States without discrimination of any kind, on a basis of equality and in accordance with international law, and there shall be free access to all areas of celestial bodies.
There shall be freedom of scientific investigation in outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, and States shall facilitate and encourage international co-operation in such investigation.”
That left many private space companies unclear on if the resources they spent billions of dollars mining would even be rightfully theirs to claim. The ambiguity led to congress passing the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act in 2015. This act allows US citizens to seek profits from space exploration and helped clear up the questions the handful of space mining companies had in the legal realm.
The inevitable outcome is that commercial space exploration is a function of our species future, and will be an integral part of space travel for water, and dealing with issues of scarcity on earth where rare metals and elements are concerned. However, we all know with vast sums of money, comes vast sums of competition. Our history is full of international competition for resources snowballing into full-scale wars, and this will likely be an issue our politicians and societies will be facing in the near future.
Instead of ignoring the subject until a military conflict over rocks in space becomes inevitable, we should immediately engage with other countries in discussions about rules and compromises that can be agreed upon, averting the confrontations that would have arisen.
As British politician Tony Benn once said,“War is the ultimate failure of diplomacy.” Let’s not disregard diplomacy until we have no other options. Approaching this issue early will allow us to move forward confidently together into a more prosperous future for mankind.
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