This week in Toronto at a keynote session of the annual trade show for the Prospectors & Developers Association of Canada (PDAC), the group which represents the interests of Canada’s mining community, Chris Lewicki, president and chief executive of Planetary Resources, spoke exuberantly about the infinite potentials of asteroid mining.
“The next resource frontier is outer space,” says Lewicki, “We’re prospecting the greatest resource in the history of the mining industry.”
By the numbers, he must be right. There are over 12,000 asteroids classified as near-Earth objects, and NASA researchers have identified about 1,500 of these as (all things being relative) easily reachable from Earth. Further, because many asteroids come from the mineral rich cores of broken up planets, they can potentially be the source of enormous wealth.
How much wealth? Here is famed astrophysicist Neil de Grasse talking about space mining: “If you haul an asteroid the size of a house to Earth, it could have more platinum on it than has ever been mined in the history of the world. More gold than has ever been mined in the history of the world.”
But practical, legal and economic hurdles stand in the way. First the practical hurdle. Companies like Planetary Resources are betting that the technology to extract and recover said minerals is not only possible and economically feasible but scalable. But space extraction currently takes place on a minute scale. For instance, the OSIRIS-REx mission by NASA will launch in September of this year, sending a spacecraft to the asteroid Bennu (which is charted to impact the Earth in the late 22nd century, incidentally) and return with about two ounces of material. That’s a billion dollar mission to bring back two ounces.
This issue, hurdle number one, hasn’t stopped prospectors from dreaming and scheming. Nor has it prevented countries from making space plans and passing space legislation. Last month Luxembourg announced that it would begin to invest in space mining companies, with deputy prime minister Étienne Schneider saying, “Our aim is to open access to a wealth of previously unexplored mineral resources, on lifeless rocks hurtling through space, without damaging natural habitats.”
Luxembourg also plans to set up a legal framework to legitimize the practice of space mining, something that few countries have attempted so far, aside from the United States, which last year created the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, effectively giving companies the right to whatever resources they can extract from asteroid mining, without actually declaring ownership of the rock itself.
But the legality of asteroid extraction bring us to hurdle number two, as the reigning international framework for space activity is still the United Nations’ Outer Space Treaty, signed 1967 in the midst of the Cold War, which maintains in no uncertain terms that outer space is definitely not up for grabs by individuals, companies or states.
The OST claims that all of outer space, including the moon and other bodies, “is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty” and that the exploration and use of outer space “shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind.”
Presumably, though, companies with the wealth and smarts to actually get a spaceship up there and back in one piece can also figure out how to work through whatever challenges in space shuttle diplomacy that might lie ahead, so we’ll move on to hurdle number three, based in economics. In a nutshell, it says that the reason why resources like platinum are costly is because they are rare (here on Earth, that is).
So what happens when you spend billions of dollars to bring back a payload of platinum? The price will plummet as supply instantly increases, leaving the space mining company hard pressed to pay for its space adventure.
Are these insurmountable hurdles? Not likely, but the moves necessary to get over them will undoubtedly be interesting to watch going forward.