There is a phrase that goes: “Space mining is science fiction”. It’s been circling around public outlets for so long that it has become a bon mot of sorts. It seems odd to utter such a phrase, when yesteryear was the year of the Cyberpunk genre, a global pandemic, which was also considered a “cheap thriller trope”, has struck the world and became an unpleasant reality for all of us. On top of all that – Poland is celebrating the year 2021 as the Year of Stanisław Lem – our famous science fiction writer and futurist. One can spend long hours and pages discussing themes presented in literary fiction which have become our reality, or past, as well as those which were supposed to be a dire warning or a wake-up call, like the ones presented in the post-apocalyptic genre (though some of those garners a large fan community, some of whom even embrace some survivalist or nomadism elements presented in said works). It has always been this way with works dealing with the uncertain future. Depending on the authors and audiences, these would be either “prophetic visions”, or scouting out the future that may come or a future that can be avoided, either positive or negative.
Nevertheless, space and astronautics have dominated futurism, science fiction, and foresight at some point and anchored a space-based dream for humanity. One has to keep in mind that not every or even most proposals for the space program, space development has never left the drawing board due to various reasons and factors, ranging from materials, economy, and socio-political issues. They all had the same goal – to bring outer space closer to humans. Whether by sending humans into space and other globes or bringing their wealth down to Earth.
Space mining, which is part of a broader category of space resource activities, can be viewed as belonging to both mentioned approaches, the best of both worlds. It is a branch of the space resource industry focused on systematic, regular surveying, planning, extracting, processing, and transport of space resources in the form of primary space products, such as mineral ores being reduced from sulfides or oxides to their pure metallic forms for industrial use in manufacturing and construction. Other resources include volatiles or isotopes to be used as fuel (propellant) and energy sources. All products of industrialized space resource operations would be utilized either by Earth’s global economy, enriching its resource base, or by off-world settlements, whose survival and development will depend on constant streams of production materials and energy resources. This is also what constitutes the Achilles heel of discussing the legal aspects of space resources or even the economic viability of utilizing them in outer space or bringing them back to Earth. Looking at space resources only from the point of view of contemporary needs and values of minerals, metals, or isotopes. It’s not that the economy is wrong, but the problem of not understanding the scale of the manufacturing industry. Metals are sold to the buyer who utilizes them, and although space mining companies can hoard space resources and manipulate the market prices of their products, they eventually end up repurposed as elements of subsystems or parts of a hull frame.
One of the primary contexts in which space mining appears in the public discourse is space law. The most common question raised is “Is space mining even legal?”. The answer is Yes. However, despite the question being too simplistic, the actual response from a lawyer should be: It depends on what constitutes space mining and what activities we are talking about. To clarify – one of the basic rules of international space law is the prohibition of national appropriation and claims of sovereignty, based by acts such as occupation or any other means (research activity, mining, manufacturing, construction, operating a regolith-based modern art museum or planting a flag), based on the Article II of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. The second rule derived from the OST is the freedom of space endeavor and peaceful utilization of outer space and celestial bodies, on the condition that the proper administrative authority has authorized such activity. States provide authorization in the form of licenses or other administrative acts following their national law. Empowering a space activity requires states to supervise such actions, which requires a dedicated branch of the government to oversee space mining, manufacturing, or settlement. Suppose states are undertaking operations that may cause potentially harmful interference with activities of other states in the area. In that case, these states should consult each other on such activity and how to avoid such interference from occurring. The rest is up to the national law of the authorizing state to regulate how such actions are commenced and whether or not or how to control the manufacturing of space objects from space resources or the use of such resources in industrial operations (such as refueling) or scientific endeavors (as fuel or construction material for interstellar probes). While states can come to drafting rules of such activities regarding safety and conferring that any overburden or caves resulting from open cut or subsurface mining don’t pose a danger to objects and crews, the lack of certainty in international space law in regards to directly regulating space resource activities is the main reason that there is a broad discussion of the topic with the legal professionals and academicians alike.
Yet, the lack of unified rules on setting up space resource operations, such as space mining, can cause problems such as the rise of pseudominers who would be given national authorization yet refrain from any activity whatsoever. Such a non-practicing entity would be even akin to patent trolls known from the field of IP law and the operators or owners of Paper satellites in telecommunications law. Although there used to be a treaty in the works, which aimed to address the issue of space mining and space resource utilization, it took on the wrong approach, which ran in contrast to the aims of major space powers, and thus remains outside of the canon of Corpus Iuris Spatialis. Therefore current space law allows for the authorization of space mining operations. However, such approval will not grant any land rights or be the basis of claims of sovereignty over the mined area, and limiting the jurisdiction and power of the authorizing state to the edges and appendages of space objects, including installations and robots, regardless of being “fused with the ground” or not. International space law does not distinguish robots from crewed habitats – all of them are mobile jurisdiction, acting as “floating islands” in outer space, same as maritime vessels on the high seas. Thus, national law and jurisdiction regarding operations carried out within a crewed or uncrewed “station module” fitted inside a lunar lava tube do not extend beyond the confines of said module. When taking into account that the future of space mining also involves manufacturing and construction of habitats, robots, vehicles, transport containers, and a broad range of tools and installations, as well as utilizing “artificial space resources”, such as space debris and wrecks, it is clear that current space law requires a makeover and updating.
At the moment, there are two primary sources of space resources being sought – the Moon and Asteroids. Our natural satellite is the best place for deep space tech proving grounds, especially those essential for the survival of crews and industrial purposed robots working outside of protective environments of shielded space stations. Our close relations with the lunar globe stem not only from the fact that we can gaze at it at night, sometimes even during the day. The Moon is a remnant of a historical collision between the protoEarth and Martian-sized planet – Thea. Littered with craters and covered with fine regolith, the Moon is the subject constant studied by geological or selenological studies, for that matter. These not only increase our knowledge of our natural satellite, its relation to Earth, its geomagnetic field, and the impact of natural satellites on planetary features, such as its climate, but they also allow us to pinpoint the deposition of resources, such as water ice, mineral ores, metals and isotopes (such as Helium 3) or given particles (atomic hydrogen). The most commonly discussed in space mining are Rare Earth Elements (REE) and Platinum Group Metals (PGM). Even though REEs are not as rare as the name suggests, besides Promethium, they became invaluable due to their usage in the electronics and renewable energy sector.
Similarly, PGMs, such as Osmium, Palladium, Platinum, or Iridium. Their application in the new industry 4.0, which includes intelligent electronics, sustainable energy sources, and manufacturing cycles, and tackling climate change disaster mitigation with preserving and expanding the technological civilization. Even the prophesized automation revolution will require large amounts of accessible tantalum and PGMs unless other materials come along.
“Concept of Spacecraft with Asteroid Capture Mechanism Deployed” by NASA HQ PHOTO is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
There is a hypothesis of using Helium 3 as a new renewable fuel for sustainable nuclear power. Although there is a lot of truth to that hypothesis, many things remain unexamined, and many myths circulate among space enthusiasts. First of all, is the myth that Helium 3 carries enormous energy potential that surpasses any other source available on Earth. That in itself is utterly false, and while that is being said, it is not that the Helium 3 hype is completely bunk. On the contrary, while He3+He3 fusion carries less power than fusing the same Helium isotope with Deuterium (D or 2H, a natural isotope of Hydrogen), and ten times lower than current Uranium fission, yet due to its aneutronic nature, Helium 3 fusion gets a lot of appeal for not producing radioactive wastes, which require strict storage procedures do to environmental concerns. The other myth is that Helium 3 originates or is only present on the Moon. Before discovering Helium 3 in the lunar regolith in the Apollo 17 samples, there were speculations about using the same isotope occurring in Gas Giants, like Jupiter or Saturn, where it exists as a natural isotope within its hydrogen-helium atmosphere. Lunar He3 comes from the solar wind, which implants it in the regolith on the lunar surface. The same helium isotope can be found on Mercury or could even be harvested from the solar wind itself.
Volatiles such as water ice, ammonia ice, or dry ice (CO2) would be used locally (in situ) or be delivered to space objects within the cislunar space. Water’s main application is a propellant source for space tugs and other craft utilizing cryogenic fuel, such as satellites, sat-servicers, or cyclers. A space tug or an Orbit Transfer Vehicle is simply an engine with fuel tanks, a control unit (crewed or robotic) with coupling and transport racks attached to it. Its primary purpose is to transport orbiting cargo and personnel between orbits, globes (Earth-Moon) or propel them towards interstellar space, limiting the rocket and fuel constraints placed on interplanetary, deep space, or extrasolar space objects. A satellite servicer is an external unit designed to either repair, modify or break down a satellite, or in its simplest form, act similarly to the space tug, but provide external fuel for station keeping operations, and “retire” a satellite after it had fulfilled its purpose, thus mitigating the problem of creating potential hazards by unmanuverable space objects colliding, breaking up into dangerous space debris. A Cycler is an object which “cycles” between two locations, such as Earth-Moon or Earth-Mars, which can carry within its hull or on its exterior frame cargo, objects, samples, supplies, and crew. A Cycler would eventually come in handy with regular flights between two globes, especially working in tandem with space tugs. Other uses of volatiles include coolants, shielding elements, life support, and agriculture.
But jumping back to Cyclers, they would come in handy with Asteroid mining. Asteroids became a hot topic some years ago due to two factors. First was the potential ease with which one could redirect an asteroid, rich with precious ores, down to Earth or Lunar orbit, then mining the same resources in the lunar environment and moving them up the lunar gravity well. Second is the political and legal ramifications of asteroid mining, which stemmed from the ongoing debate in Space Law. However, their size and “mobility” concerning the lunar surface were seen as an advantage. Asteroid mining, however, has some significant backdrops. Even Near Earth Asteroids possess velocities and sidereal periods, making them harder to survey than the Moon. And sending a mining craft after a moving asteroid has been successfully analyzed (and the data shows that it bears precious ores – which not all of them do) requires time and fuel or novel space drives that aren’t available yet.
On top of that, asteroids aren’t just mountain-sized chunks of rock. They are often covered with dust, ice, pebbles and not as fused solid as we tend to think of them. Furthermore, they are spinning, which will require future miners to counter that rotation to stabilize the swirling rock (without breaking it apart, which was an element early asteroid-habitat concepts tended to forget) before any redirecting can be performed. Thus in the case where time is money, asteroid mining might initially be the more problematic approach. However, what asteroids do have are different compositions of resources. Apart from lacking REEs, as far as we know, due to lacking geological processes that lead to their creation, PGMs and nickel-iron metals in asteroids tend to be present in pure form, where lunar ores will require an amount of processing. Furthermore, their surface gravity and their non-spherical shape will make it harder to maneuver as well as mine their resources in situ, without the need to use a form of a canopy or hood, which would prohibit any part of the asteroid from escaping into outer space, while also providing anchoring for such mining machines.
So far, we’ve been focusing mainly on that angles of space resource activities, which tend to address the contemporary issues of the electronics, materials, manufacturing, and energy markets, that needs to dig deep and wide into the surface of our planetary landmasses and use water in nearly every stage of the process. We’ve also addressed the needs of the satellite industry, such as servicing and refueling. But if we look beyond Earth, the needs and types of resources available take up different shapes and scopes. In-situ Space Resource Utilization has a different approach to space resources, starting with a broadened approach to what constitutes a resource. Take silicates of the lunar regolith, for example. Bringing them to Earth for reasons other than study or putting them in a museum is unfeasible or even pointless when talking about industrial-scale excavations and regular shipments. However, the Moon is a desert – thus, every proper operation involving either robot villages or crewed habitats or research stations will have to rely on the comprehensive knowledge and adequate means to supplement portions of their supplies from the local environment. Such ability, call it mooncrafting (after bushcrafting, although there aren’t any bushes on the Moon, but plenty of regolith lying around there), would help robots create protective shells around habitats or shelters for themselves from processed, uniformed regolith derived filament. Metals such as nickel, iron, titanium, and aluminum will serve as building materials for frames of other stations, robots, or installations, not mentioning lessening the weight of every mission requiring large rigid structures with every generation, due to the developments and improvements of mining, processing, and manufacturing. This will also allow Martian settlers to thrive with little to no resupplies from Earth. This would also allow OSAM, the On-Orbit Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing operations, to utilize prefabricated elements for orbital stations or solar power plants (Powersats) manufactured from space resources. Cryogenic fuel can be manufactured by releasing oxygen from regolith silicates and collecting molecular hydrogen captured within the regolith to avoid interfering with lunar water cycles as much as possible. Hydrocarbons, nitrogen, ammonia-based compounds, oxygen, argon, or any other compound found on any celestial body within the system or in its atmosphere can serve various purposes in life support, experiments, breading of valuable microorganisms. Where there is a need for building and manufacturing materials and human dwellings require constant streams of resources, there will be some form of space resource operation, mining, or otherwise.
Spreading life into outer space and onto barren worlds, expanding the ecological, industrial and cultural sphere of Earth beyond its gravity well cannot happen without the ability to utilize available resources. Whether Martian, Lunar, or completely non-planet based, these humans and the ecosystems they will be responsible for, will have to adapt and learn to use the riches and attributes of the environment as best as possible. Space mining has the opportunity not only to enrich the terrestrial econosphere with spaceborne metals and minerals, extracted in an environmentally friendly fashion (currently ESA is setting up projects for mining and manufacturing in an “as above, so below” fashion, where the goal is to develop mineral extraction technologies suited for all environments, including Earth, with the focal points such as eliminating the use of water in mining operations) but can also become the basis for space settlement and deep space exploration. The ability to produce required elements or essential structural components using suitable materials available in-situ (raw or processed) or to be able to obtain them from other space objects or settlements in optimal timeframes will undoubtedly decrease the logistic supply burden on both exploratory and demo missions. If not the thing, such as a rover itself, neighboring objects might supply it with fuel, spare parts, or repair units, thus benefiting space exploration and research capacity of robotic or crewed science laboratories on mobile space objects. This model of systemic cooperation will be the most significant long-term benefit of space resource operations.