The final frontier for resource development

If recent announcements from firms such as Deep Space Industries are any indication, it seems as though the next space race won’t just be for exploration – it will be for resources.

In mid-January, the privately owned American company joined the likes of Hollywood director James Cameron and Google Executive Eric Schmidt in a race to capitalize on space-bound resources, when it declared its intention to begin resource exploration in space by 2015.

According to the company’s chairman, Rick Tumlinson, theirs will be a three-stage operation culminating in the extraction of fuel sources like gas, and metals (including gold, platinum and nickel) that might lie trapped under asteroids’ rocky surfaces. To find them, tiny Firefly spacecraft will be used to probe for the materials.

Those Firefly missions will last anywhere from two to six months, as they examine asteroids as they pass by Earth. Then, the larger Dragonfly crafts will begin extracting samples from those environments, returning to Earth with material samples. They say that eventually, their Harvestor-class craft will be able to return to earth with commercial loads of resources including, they say, metals and propellants.

The targets of those missions will be the approximately 9,000 near-Earth asteroids (NEAs), which have been identified and catalogued, and are far closer to our planet than the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Many of those NEAs were once bits of other planets – they’re rich with valuable metals, and already stratified into planetary layers, making them easier to mine.

Race for resources won’t go unregulated

Many are likening the potential outer space resource boom to the days of the Klondike gold rush, that kind of unregulated competition won’t be possible once private companies start launching their own ventures. Ram Jakhu, a professor at McGill University’s department of Air and Space Law, says that there will be plenty of hoops for those companies to jump through before they start harvesting precious metals and fuels from asteroids or other celestial bodies.

“There’s a big difference from what used to happen on Earth and what is in space, because there’s a prohibition of appropriation by anyone,” he says. “It was considered to be a free-for-all, where you go and grab resources, and take whatever you wanted, but that is not the situation in space.”

Ram Jakhu, an air and space law professor at McGill University, says that resource development in space will be far from a free-for-all.

“I don’t think it’s on the radar of the government of Canada.” – Ram Jakhu, associate professor of Air and Space Law, McGill University

Instead, Jakhu says there are several international agreements in place to ensure that resources are acquired fairly, including the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and the 1979 Moon agreement. He likens the kind of regulation and licensing that might apply to companies in space to those currently surrounding radio frequencies, which can only be used by those who are licensed by governments.

“The treaties require that any private company that wants to go to space needs authorization and must remain subject to the supervision of their state,” Jakhu says. “They cannot just go on their own and do whatever they want.”

On the contrary, any resource extraction that occurs would be under the watchful eyes of governments, and any gains would be subject to a particular article from the Outer Space Treaty. According to that agreement, any resources found on the moon, and the profits gained from them, must be shared between countries, including developing nations – something Jakhu says could be a barrier for investment.

“Today, the need is for some overall framework,” he says. “With respect to mining in space, there is no legislation in Canada. I don’t think it’s on the radar of the government of Canada.”

Jakhu adds that with such a developed mining industry already present in Canada, it will probably only be a matter of time before its companies express an interest in expanding beyond Earth’s resources. And they aren’t the only firms that stand to benefit from resource extraction in outer space.

Local company sets sights on resource development

Ottawa-based Neptec Design Group represents another corner of the private sector that could take advantage of future space mining expeditions. They’ve designed machinery, including excavation rovers, for the Canadian Space Agency and NASA. Now, they’re hoping to move towards projects with private clients, says president and CEO Iain Christie.

“In terms of who the customers and users of the technology will be, there are a number of players out there now,” he says. “They all seem to be very serious, and they all seem to be mounting credible campaigns.”

So far, the design firm has specialized in the production of vision systems, making it easier for objects in space to efficiently communicate and dock with one another.  They’ve also explored the potential for the automated landing of spacecraft, and worked with other partners to design a rover technology that can move and carry things like mining equipment in space. He adds that in the future, Neptec may even expand into designing the mining equipment itself.

“It’s not around the corner, but certainly well within my lifetime.” – Iain Christie, CEO, Neptec Design

“Once we actually get going (mining) either objects or the moon, I think there’s a real opportunity for companies,” Christie says. “I think our market will expand exponentially.”

He says that opportunity will likely be brightest for firms that have worked with government space agencies – the experience and credibility accumulated through those partnerships are the currency of the industry.

“That work is going to be essential,” he says. “I think the only thing that really matters in the space business is flight heritage. Until you’ve flown equipment and seen it really work in space, there really is no guarantee that it’s going to be successful.”

Those plans place firms like Neptec and Deep Space Industries among a handful of companies with plans to tap into resources beyond the Earth’s atmosphere – including the Cameron- and Schmidt-backed Planetary Resources, and others competing in Google’s Lunar-X competition. The contest is offering $30 million to the first private company to complete a mission to the moon, on top of the commercial rewards of getting there first.

“Each 500-tonne asteroid claimed from space would cost upwards of $2.5 billion, and to be successful, mining companies would need about $100 billion in start-up capital.” – Keck Institute for Space Studies

But all of those rewards will come at a steep price – one that could easily overshadow the amount of prize money up for grabs, and could make investors wary. According to a study from the Keck Institute for Space Studies, each 500-tonne asteroid claimed from space and transported to the moon would cost upwards of $2.5 billion, and to be successful, mining companies would need to go into their ventures with about $100 billion in start-up capital.

With costs like those, some critics are skeptical of how soon those projects will be able to get off the ground. And although much of the technology that will be used for resource extraction already exists, there is still plenty that is still needed for mining missions, not least of which is the space-ready mining equipment itself. With that in mind, Christie says that it will likely at least 15 to 20 years before ground is actually broken – a more conservative estimate than those provided by Deep Space Industries and their competitors.

“Then again, in 1960, John Kennedy challenged United States to go to the moon within the decade,” he says. “It’s the sort of thing that once it becomes clear that the economic model is valid, it may accelerate very quickly. It’s not around the corner, but certainly well within my lifetime.”


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