Mining in Space Is Coming

Illustration by James Vaughan, Milken Review

By Alex Gilbert,
Published by Milken Institute Review, 26 April 2021

Space exploration is back. after decades of disappointment, a combination of better technology, falling costs and a rush of competitive energy from the private sector has put space travel front and center. indeed, many analysts (even some with their feet on the ground) believe that commercial developments in the space industry may be on the cusp of starting the largest resource rush in history: mining on the Moon, Mars and asteroids.

While this may sound fantastical, some baby steps toward the goal have already been taken. Last year, NASA awarded contracts to four companies to extract small amounts of lunar regolith by 2024, effectively beginning the era of commercial space mining. Whether this proves to be the dawn of a gigantic adjunct to mining on earth — and more immediately, a key to unlocking cost-effective space travel — will turn on the answers to a host of questions ranging from what resources can be efficiently.

As every fan of science fiction knows, the resources of the solar system appear virtually unlimited compared to those on Earth. There are whole other planets, dozens of moons, thousands of massive asteroids and millions of small ones that doubtless contain humungous quantities of materials that are scarce and very valuable (back on Earth). Visionaries including Jeff Bezos imagine heavy industry moving to space and Earth becoming a residential area. However, as entrepreneurs look to harness the riches beyond the atmosphere, access to space resources remains tangled in the realities of economics and governance.

Start with the fact that space belongs to no country, complicating traditional methods of resource allocation, property rights and trade. With limited demand for materials in space itself and the need for huge amounts of energy to return materials to Earth, creating a viable industry will turn on major advances in technology, finance and business models.

That said, there’s no grass growing under potential pioneers’ feet. Potential economic, scientific and even security benefits underlie an emerging geopolitical competition to pursue space mining. The United States is rapidly emerging as a front-runner, in part due to its ambitious Artemis Program to lead a multinational consortium back to the Moon. But it is also a leader in creating a legal infrastructure for mineral exploitation. The United States has adopted the world’s first spaceresources law, recognizing the property rights of private companies and individuals to materials gathered in space.

However, the United States is hardly alone. Luxembourg and the United Arab Emirates (you read those right) are racing to codify space-resources laws of their own, hoping to attract investment to their entrepot nations with business-friendly legal frameworks. China reportedly views space-resource development as a national priority, part of a strategy to challenge U.S. economic and security primacy in space. Meanwhile, Russia, Japan, India and the European Space Agency all harbor space-mining ambitions of their own. Governing these emerging interests is an outdated treaty framework from the Cold War. Sooner rather than later, we’ll need new agreements to facilitate private investment and ensure international cooperation.

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