Extraction of Earth’s resources is vital for the advancement of modern infrastructure and technology. However, Earth’s resources are limited, and their continued use for the expansion and growth of humanity has resulted in their depletion. Mining is often destructive, we have little control over the global distribution of economically viable reserves of rare materials, and access to key deposits could be restricted by geopolitical and environmental circumstances. A new solution to these concerns lies in space resource utilisation (SRU), which involves accessing key resources and reserves on extra-terrestrial bodies such as asteroids or the Moon. However, existing policy frameworks lack the scope to regulate and enable this.
- Space resource utilisation (SRU) could solve our issues with resources, materials and extraction, but current policies do not promote or enable this.
- A collaborative, international policy framework must be developed and implemented, to maximise the benefits of space for all in a sustainable way.
- This could advance space activities in a methodical, responsible way and would also create funding and employment opportunities for researchers and companies across the world.
Space materials as resources
Extra-terrestrial bodies contain materials ranging from rocky silicate minerals to iron-dominated metals. Studies propose that bodies such as some asteroids and parts of the Moon contain potentially economically viable quantities of metals, such as platinum group metal elements, and volatiles such as water, hydrogen, and oxygen. Asteroids are both abundant and diverse in composition, so may be a useful source of a range of materials. It has been suggested that asteroids that collided with the Moon and are embedded in the Moon’s upper crust might represent mineable metal and platinum group element deposits. The Moon’s surface soil materials are rich in helium-3, an isotope that is critical to the development of advanced fusion nuclear power technologies. Lunar resources used in situ on the Moon might also support the fuel, construction, and water requirements of a sustained human presence on the Moon or other bodies. The exact distribution and concentration of the elements and compounds of interest is currently unknown – and the next phase of asteroid and lunar exploration seeks to answer these questions.
How do we access asteroid materials?
The technical challenges of accessing key materials remain extensive and varied depending on factors such as the size and makeup of the planetary body. Mechanisms for acquiring space resources typically involve the rocket-powered delivery of technology, designed for scraping surface material or digging into subsurface material. It has been proposed that smaller bodies like asteroids could be towed into Earth orbit by rocket-powered vehicles, although this has received criticism because of the potential for a significant impact hazard. Materials could be returned to Earth in bulk or processed on the parent body or in space to reduce cost by minimising the mass of returned material. However, these technologies are still largely hypothetical, meaning that such activities are not currently feasible.
Space resources research
In recent years, researchers have taken a renewed interest in SRU, with prominent missions such as the JAXA Hayabusa2 and NASA OSIRIS-REx missions successfully returning material from nearby asteroids to Earth. Research at The University of Manchester is linked directly to overcoming the challenges of accessing space resources, as we tackle the characterisation of material on and from the lunar surface and develop mechanisms for extracting it. This work highlighted the unknowns we have about the behaviour of planetary surface materials interacting with mechanical extraction tools, including issues around operations in low gravity environments and effects of highly abrasive materials. Researchers from across different faculties have also come together to host a workshop which explored the ethical implications of visiting and exploiting the resources of other worlds.
Mutually beneficial space policy
The Outer Space Treaty (OST), facilitated by the United Nations and signed in 1967 with 111 parties to date, establishes fundamental provisions for the exploration of space and has provided the basis for many international and domestic laws relating to space activities developed since. It mandates that space and its resources be shared equally, and that activities be conducted peacefully and responsibly. These principles present a clear picture of SRU as a collaborative undertaking that works to the fair treatment of involved parties. However, the OST does not give the detailed instructions that government bodies and private companies need to navigate the legal and ethical obstacles that may present as SRU becomes technologically, economically, and strategically viable. Current space-related policy challenges, and the stakeholders involved in space-based activity, have changed since the treaty was signed 55 years ago. Signatories in 1967 did not have to seriously consider the ramifications of commercial space mining, but today’s policymakers could be dealing with commercial space activity in a matter of years. Policymakers should consider whether the treaty is fit-for-purpose for current, and future, space activities carried out by nations and companies.
Until recently, there has been little advancement towards an applicable policy framework. In 2019, the Hague Space Resources Governance Working Group (HSRGWG) identified areas within the current legal framework that require development, referred to as ‘building blocks’. Key points include that the priority of parties to mine resources be overseen by an international registry. Material and knowledge benefits of space activities should continue to be shared and acquired resources should be accessible through mechanisms such as trade. It is also crucial that space activities be conducted in a responsible and sustainable way that minimises harm to Earth environments and communities, as well as to space environments, a point which has been highlighted by research at The University of Manchester.
Next steps for policymakers
At present, these issues have not yet been addressed by any overarching, international policy initiative or regulatory framework. Some countries, such as the US and Luxembourg, have acted to permit preliminary space resource activities. The UK has yet to support such initiatives, although the 2018 Space Industry Bill will allow future commercial space launches from the UK. The UK Space Resources Bill was proposed in 2018 by the Asteroid Mining Corporation, a UK company associated with the development of Asteroid Prospecting Satellite One. The drafted bill outlines the right of UK nationals to “explore and use outer space and celestial bodies for the purpose of extracting space resources” but is not currently legal policy.
Key points for policymakers:
- As technology is developed to support commercial activities, it is important that a collaboration-focussed, international policy framework is developed and implemented to maximise the benefits of space for everyone in a sustainable way.
- Guidelines could be established based on the HSRGWG priorities, to implement fair priority access to valuable materials and ensure appropriate distribution of wealth and resources. Guidelines would need to be adaptable to developing access and beneficiation techniques.
- Benefits of a policy framework would include sharing space resources to the benefit of all and advancing space activities in a methodical, responsible way. It would also create funding and employment opportunities for researchers and companies in countries that don’t have a domestic framework for space activities.
This article originally appeared in On Space, a collection exploring how pioneering research into the space sector will continue to help impact UK and international space policy through the development of home grown space capabilities, supporting international collaborations and the levelling up of our space economy. Published by Policy@Manchester.
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