The idea of outer space mining has long been the realm of sci-fi. However, with great strides are being made in space technology, the distant future may be approaching faster than we think. Perhaps the best example of this was Trump’s Executive Order of April 6th, which solidified the legal foundation for US companies to begin resource extraction in space.
the United States does not view space as a “global commons”
The Executive Order states that “Americans should have the right to engage in commercial exploration, recovery, and use of resources in outer space.” It asserts that the United States does not view space as a ‘global commons’. The Secretary of State is directed to “negotiate joint statements and bilateral and multilateral arrangements with foreign states” in relation to “public and private recovery and use of space resources.”
In addition to fully asserting the fact that US companies have legal ownership of all resources they extract in space the Executive Order allayed concerns created when Congress passed the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act in 2015. This Act established that US companies owned what they extracted in space. It explicitly denied that the US was claiming sovereignty or jurisdiction. This led to legal ambiguity regarding ownership and legal remedy which has discouraged mining companies from investing in space exploitation. The Executive Order has sought to alleviate this.
Now, if two US companies become involved in a dispute over resource extraction on an asteroid, the case would be remedied in a US court. This implies that the US is asserting legal jurisdiction in space. This is illegal under the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. However, there is still a level of legal indecisiveness when considering a dispute between a US company, and one from another country.
The Executive Order implies that the US has confirmed it does not see space as international territory, like Antarctica. The US will now seek bilateral agreements, completely bypassing the UN and attached bodies. Disputes between US companies would be heard in a US court. When foreign companies are involved, there would likely be remedial procedures established, if not, it would be a political matter.
the legal aspect is only one barrier to the wider development of space mining
Of course, the legal aspect is only one barrier to the wider development of space mining. There are two other critical aspects. First, the development of technology capable of mining in space. Secondly, finding the means to transport equipment to space, and extracted materials back.
Many mining companies are pioneering technologies which may be well adapted for use in space. Challenges faced when mining in the deep-sea mirror conditions outside our atmosphere. This has already led to corporations developing and trialling, technologies to work in zero-gravity-like conditions underwater. Crucially, autonomous mining equipment, requiring no human to be physically present, is also under development. A Greenpeace report demonstrated the commercial interest in deep-sea mining by revealing hundreds of licences granted by the International Seabed Authority. These technologies will take years before being ready for use on the seafloor. Adaptation to use in space will take even longer. However, work is underway.
Even if established companies had the technology to mine in space, they would still have to get there. Previously, this was unfeasible. Most launch systems were expendable, which made launches astronomically expensive. This put them out of reach commercially. Only recently has commercial space flight been capable of carrying the enormous weight of mining equipment. Now, a multitude of companies, primarily SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic offers commercial launches at competitive prices. Companies with no space abilities can contract out launches and reach space.
US commercial space sector is growing substantially year-on-year
Trump’s Executive Order was another piece of the puzzle for commercial space mining. Mining companies, who are quite exposed to the politics of Washington, will likely wait until at least November, after the US election, before making changes. This Executive Order can be revoked as easily as it was written. However, this seems unlikely. The US commercial space sector is growing substantially year-on-year. Both Democrats and Republicans want it to develop. Democrats, generally more agreeable to international bodies and agreements are, perhaps, happy they did not have to write the EO. However, they have no need to undo it.
A Goldman Sachs report, labelling space as “The Next Investment Frontier”, noted that they expected space to become a multi-trillion-dollar industry within two decades. The profitability of successful space mining is perhaps the main reason why it has wide bipartisan support in the US. On a more disruptive level, they note that an asteroid just 100 meters wide could contain $25-$50 billion in platinum alone. The price would plummet once significant levels of platinum began returning to Earth. For the first few players however, the prize is there.
Another potential profit source, which appears to be straight from sci-fi, is water. Water can be refined into hydrogen and oxygen, both used as liquid rocket propellant. It requires roughly 54kg of fuel to take 1kg into orbit. By mining water from the Moon and asteroids, rockets could refuel in orbit. If it was possible to refuel in space, rockets, on their way to Mars, would only need to take the fuel necessary to leave the Earth’s atmosphere. This would radically alter the possibilities of space travel and drive costs down even further. Ownership of such ‘refuelling’ stations would be incredibly lucrative.
Space mining is still a while away. The technology is yet to be physically put to use on Earth, let alone space. Only SpaceX is currently launching commercial payloads. But, the legal basis seems firm. In much of human history, removing legal and institutional obstacles has paved the way for technology. The ball is in the mining companies’ court to develop the technology. Given the potential profitability, that ball is rolling.