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The challenges of extraterrestrial mining

Mining in space: can we do it?

Pierre Henriquet, Doctor in Nuclear Physics
On May 17th, 2022 |
4 mins reading time
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Mining in space: can we do it?
Pierre Henriquet
Pierre Henriquet
Doctor in Nuclear Physics
Key takeaways
  • Extraterrestrial minerals are attractive; the scarcity of resources on Earth could lead us to look to space.
  • The metallic asteroid Psyche (about 200 km wide), for example, contains about 50% metal, a total amount equivalent to millions of years of our annual global iron and nickel production.
  • The legislative framework around extraterrestrial mining is very unclear. Many countries such as the United States, Luxembourg and the United Arab Emirates are working on legislation to regulate it.
  • Whatever the interest of the public or private sector in the development of extraterrestrial resource extraction activities, it must be recognised that the task is far from easy

While the idea of exploit­ing resources on the Moon and oth­er solar sys­tem bod­ies has been around for many years, with promis­es of lunar bases and colonies on Mars, these ambi­tious dreams have yet to become reality.

The sit­u­a­tion might be chang­ing now, how­ev­er, thanks to the advent of improved tech­nolo­gies, falling costs of space trav­el and the pri­vate sector’s rush to devel­op com­pet­i­tive ener­gies. Com­mer­cial devel­op­ments in the space indus­try and the short­age of chem­i­cal ele­ments need­ed for indus­try also means that we might have to look for resources else­where – on the Moon, aster­oids or, in the longer term, oth­er bod­ies fur­ther out in the solar system.

Exam­ple of lunar min­ing (cred­it: Das­sault Systèmes)

A bonanza to mine

The aster­oid Psy­che (which is about 200 km wide) could be 50% metal­lic, mean­ing it could con­tain the equiv­a­lent of mil­lions of years of our annu­al glob­al iron and nick­el pro­duc­tion. And it is not only these met­als that are attract­ing future space prospectors.

Oth­er aster­oids are rich in ele­ments that are very rare on Earth. These include plat­inum, irid­i­um, osmi­um and pal­la­di­um, which are all extreme­ly impor­tant for indus­try and are used in prod­ucts as diverse as cat­alyt­ic con­vert­ers, pace­mak­ers and med­ical implants. Impor­tant­ly, they are also present in most mod­ern elec­tron­ic com­po­nents. Since they are a lim­it­ed resource on Earth, their high cost may make the idea of min­ing them in space not such a far-fetched idea.

Clos­er to home, the space indus­try is becom­ing increas­ing­ly inter­est­ed in the Moon. Not for rare met­als, but for two oth­er equal­ly strate­gic resources.

The first is water. Lunar orbit analy­ses from sci­en­tif­ic explo­ration probes such as the US Lunar Recon­nais­sance Orbiter (LRO) and India’s Chandrayaan‑1 have con­firmed that water exists on almost the entire sur­face of the Moon, but espe­cial­ly in the form of ice in craters, per­ma­nent­ly in the shade, at the poles. Once puri­fied, this water could ini­tial­ly be used to meet the water require­ments of astro­nauts on a lunar mis­sion. Once it has been sep­a­rat­ed into its basic con­stituents (oxy­gen and hydro­gen), how­ev­er, it could pro­vide space­craft with fuel (this is what the Ari­ane 5 rocket’s main stage uses today).

Min­ing an aster­oid (cred­it Deep Space Industries)

What is more, it appears that solar winds have deposit­ed large quan­ti­ties of helium‑3 (a light iso­tope of heli­um) in the equa­to­r­i­al regions of the Moon. This helium‑3 is a poten­tial fuel source for sec­ond and third gen­er­a­tion fusion reac­tors that are expect­ed to come into oper­a­tion by the end of the century.

An ever-evolving legislative framework

Would we be allowed to freely mine oth­er celes­tial bodies?

The 1967 Out­er Space Treaty explic­it­ly for­bids nations from claim­ing own­er­ship of a celes­tial body. The Moon, for exam­ple, is a ‘com­mon good’. How­ev­er, it is easy to find loop­holes in this text, which was writ­ten at a time of the Cold War when space-relat­ed con­cerns were very different.

One of the ‘ploys’ put for­ward by the US and oth­er nations that want to devel­op space min­ing is that, just as inter­na­tion­al waters on Earth belong to no one, and that any­one can fish in them, coun­tries and com­pa­nies could de fac­to exploit and make their own the resources extract­ed from celes­tial bod­ies – with­out actu­al­ly claim­ing the celes­tial bod­ies themselves.

To address these con­cerns, the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion signed the so-called “Space Act” in 2015, allow­ing US cit­i­zens to “engage in the explo­ration and com­mer­cial exploita­tion of space resources”.

In April 2020, the Trump admin­is­tra­tion issued an exec­u­tive order sup­port­ing US min­ing on the Moon and aster­oids. This was imme­di­ate­ly fol­lowed by NASA’s Artemis agree­ments in May 2020. These include the devel­op­ment of ‘safe zones’ sur­round­ing future lunar bases, pre­sum­ably to pre­vent dif­fer­ent coun­tries or com­pa­nies from step­ping on each other’s toes and poten­tial­ly trig­ger­ing diplo­mat­ic incidents.

Future Artemis astro­nauts tak­ing lunar sam­ples (cred­it NASA)

We must remem­ber that the Unit­ed States is not the only coun­try work­ing on new leg­is­la­tion for future com­mer­cial space activ­i­ties. Lux­em­bourg and the Unit­ed Arab Emi­rates are cod­i­fy­ing their own laws on space resources in the hope of attract­ing invest­ment with busi­ness-friend­ly legal frame­works. Rus­sia, Japan, India and the Euro­pean Space Agency are fol­low­ing suite and all have their own space min­ing objectives.

Private companies on the starting blocks

While the real exploita­tion of space resources has not yet begun, this new sec­tor is jam-packed with pri­vate-sec­tor can­di­dates. These come and go, how­ev­er, as agree­ments are made and unmade, fund­ing is found and lost, and com­pa­nies go bankrupt.

Plan­e­tary Resources, found­ed in 2009 with the aim of devel­op­ing a robot­ic aster­oid min­ing indus­try, fell by the way­side in 2020 despite high-pro­file found­ing investors that includ­ed Alpha­bet’s Lar­ry Page, for­mer Google CEO Eric Schmidt and Vir­gin Group founder Richard Branson.

Schak­le­ton Ener­gy Com­pa­ny, a Texas-based com­pa­ny found­ed in 2007 to devel­op tech­nolo­gies for lunar min­ing, failed in 2013 because it was not able to raise enough funds in the two years that pre­ced­ed this date.

Oth­er com­pa­nies have emerged since then, how­ev­er, and are lay­ing their stakes on an impor­tant future space indus­try. One exam­ple is Japan’s iSpace, which aims to ‘help com­pa­nies access new busi­ness oppor­tu­ni­ties on the Moon’ (extrac­tion of water and min­er­al resources). Off­world, a Cal­i­forn­ian com­pa­ny, is devel­op­ing ‘uni­ver­sal indus­tri­al robots capa­ble of doing most of the min­ing on Earth, the Moon, aster­oids and Mars’. The UK’s Aster­oid Min­ing Cor­po­ra­tion is cur­rent­ly fund­ing the devel­op­ment of the ‘El Dora­do’ satel­lite, offi­cial­ly sched­uled for launch in 2023. This satel­lite should con­duct a broad spec­tral sur­vey of 5000 aster­oids to iden­ti­fy the ones most valu­able for mining.

Still a long way to go

How­ev­er inter­est­ed the pub­lic or pri­vate sec­tor is in devel­op­ing extrac­tive activ­i­ties for extrater­res­tri­al resources, the task will be far from easy.

If we are to mine the Moon, for exam­ple, we will have to over­come a num­ber of spe­cif­ic prob­lems. At the lunar poles tem­per­a­tures go from 120˚C dur­ing the day to ‑232˚C at night, and radi­a­tion from cos­mic rays, which are not deflect­ed by a plan­e­tary mag­net­ic field, like that of the Earth’s, cre­ates a very hos­tile envi­ron­ment. As the Apol­lo astro­nauts also dis­cov­ered, lunar dust is extreme­ly fine and high­ly abra­sive, so mov­ing parts on mechan­i­cal machin­ery must be pro­tect­ed. Lubri­ca­tion and cool­ing are very dif­fi­cult too, as the major­i­ty of oils and coolants dis­in­te­grate or evap­o­rate in a vacuum.

The sit­u­a­tion on aster­oids in not much bet­ter. Although the tech­nolo­gies devel­oped in recent years to reach, fly over and approach the sur­face of aster­oids have evolved con­sid­er­ably, thanks to the devel­op­ment of sci­en­tif­ic explo­ration probes such as Hayabusa 2 (Japan) or Osiris-Rex (USA), the tech­niques for min­ing and har­vest­ing mate­ri­als in zero grav­i­ty have yet to be devel­oped and tested.

Final­ly, we should remem­ber that pub­lic bod­ies are also active in this field. In 2019, Ari­ane­Group signed a con­tract with the Euro­pean Space Agency to study the pos­si­bil­i­ty of going to the Moon before 2025 and start work­ing there. For this study, Ari­ane­Group and its sub­sidiary Ari­ane­space have teamed up with a Ger­man start-up, PT Sci­en­tists, which will sup­ply the lan­der, and a Bel­gian SME, Space Appli­ca­tions Ser­vices, which will sup­ply the ground seg­ment, com­mu­ni­ca­tions equip­ment and asso­ci­at­ed ser­vice operations.