Asteroid Mining–Not as Crazy as It Sounds

Kirsten Johanson, MJLST Staff Member

Over the last few years, companies and private individuals have fully embraced novel space activities. Felix Baumgarner completed a space jump with the Red Bull Stratos making him the first human to break the sound barrier without any engine power. SpaceX developed the first reusable rocket, the Grasshopper, and was the first private company to deliver a shipment to the International Space Station. Recently, for the first time in history, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission successfully landed its space probe, Philae, on a comet. All of these ventures pushed the boundaries of space exploration beyond limits previously imagined and all indications are that such ventures will continue. One such undertaking is the concept of asteroid mining.

Asteroid mining is exactly what it sounds like–humans landing equipment on asteroids (and other celestial bodies) and mining for the minerals that exist on such bodies. This concept might seem far-fetched but, in reality, it is a serious topic of debate primarily because of the usefulness of the minerals that exist in the crust of asteroids. NASA has released an estimate “that the mineral wealth resident in the belt of asteroids between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter would be equivalent to about 100 billion dollars for every person on Earth today.” The reason such minerals are so valuable is because of their potential usefulness in “developing the space structures and in generating the rocket fuel that will be required to explore and colonize our solar system in the twenty-first century.”

Today, the physical process of actually mining these minerals is still not cost-effective. As a result, the bigger debate on this issue is currently over the legal implications of mining these minerals and returning them to earth. In space, no single country’s laws apply but, in 1967, over one hundred countries signed the United Nations’ Outer Space Treaty of 1967. This treaty is the current law governing space and it prevents the appropriation of outer space or any celestial body in space by any nation in its space explorations. While this law unequivocally applies to sovereign nations, the recent dispute is over the extension of this treaty to private companies participating in asteroid mining. If it does not, companies like Deep Space Industries, Planetary Resources, SpaceX, or other private players in the space exploration field could begin developing mining procedures that would give them rights to any mined asteroid minerals. However, if it does extend to private companies, this opportunity will likely die before it gets started.

Many in the public and private sector in the United States are pushing for a narrow application of the law to nations which would leave open a huge industry for private development. In Congress, the American Space Technology for Exploring Resource Opportunities In Deep Space (ASTEROIDS) Act was recently introduced in the House of Representatives to officially clarify the law. The Act states that “[a]ny resources obtained in outer space from an asteroid are the property of the entity that obtained such resources.” This would mean that any asteroid mining company would have unlimited access and appropriation rights over any asteroid materials they mine but not over the asteroid itself.

Proponents of such a reading have introduced various statutory interpretation arguments that get them to this conclusion, but it is still unclear which of these will likely be the winning argument. Or even if there will be a winning argument. While asteroid mining does present significant opportunities well into the future, it is still a long-term venture unlikely to launch anytime soon. As a result, if the ASTEROID Act does find enough support in Congress, that is only the first step. The United States will still have to assert an international position amenable to other countries.

Overall, this Act and the publicity it will need to generate to garner sufficient support of this industry is an important first step but it cannot be the only step. Other countries, particularly the signers of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, must develop a workable solution to the ownership question of asteroid materials. However, with the potential technological advancements and economic realizations of such an industry, it is unlikely that countries with active space exploration will be opposed. Hopefully, these countries see the development opportunities as outweighing the costs because, if there is wide acceptance, this might be the real start of space development and colonization.