Humanity’s need for resources is growing. The Earth’s mineral reserves are needed to fuel the planet’s expanding populations, advancing technologies and expanding industries, with everything from coal and oil to rare earth minerals in high demand. But deposits are finite, and there are fears that the world could run out of resources just as the need for them peaks. In 2017, world coal production fell to 7.6 billion tonnes (bnt), just above global coal consumption of 7.4bnt, the first time the latter figure had increased in three years.

Yet as technology improves, particularly in the fields of automation and artificial intelligence, lofty goals such as mining bodies in outer space become more realistic. There is estimated to be enough mineral wealth in the asteroid belt alone to give each person on Earth $100bn, and some individual asteroids have larger deposits of iron ore than can be found on Earth.

Reaching these deposits, let alone recovering them, requires considerable technological and logistical effort, so interested parties are looking closer to home for potential initial mining projects. The Moon has emerged as a candidate for future mineral extraction, with a team from the University of New South Wales (UNSW), led by Professor Andrew Dempster, targeting water extraction on the Moon as a source of fuel for future missions, and a proof of concept for sceptical mining companies.

Extracting hydrogen and oxygen from ice

“We’ve been working in space mining for about six years now,” says Dempster, the director of the Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research at UNSW, whose team is putting together a proposal to the Australian Research Council (ARC) to support a project to extract water from the Moon. The project will bring together scientists from other universities and research organisations to plan the mission, which will involve mining ice from shadowed craters, melting it into water and extracting from it hydrogen and oxygen, key components in rocket fuel.

Dempster intends for the project to be largely autonomous, with robots working in craters powered by a power plant on the surface of the Moon beyond human oversight. He adds that improving the machines’ artificial intelligence would be a key challenge though.

“There’s a real trade-off between how much bandwidth you have available to perform your command functions or your control functions, and the autonomy that you allow the machines to have,” he said. “So really the robots that are there are going to be making most of the decisions themselves”.

Humanity’s history with reaching and exploring the moon could make the mission more feasible, as people have been completing missions to reach its orbit and walk on its surface since 1969. The fact that a number of companies are also targeting the Moon, such as the SpaceX Big Falcon Rocket (BFR), which is scheduled to fly to the Moon in 2023, was a positive for Dempster. He says that his team could aim to send some of its mining gear onto the Moon as part of another flight, if they couldn’t fund the project themselves.

An industry worth $2.7 trillion

Securing funding is another of the group’s most significant challenges. While the ARC gives, on average, $570m a year in funding, the BFR has been estimated to cost anywhere between $5bn and $10bn, so Dempster is aiming to attract investment from large mining companies, who could gain access to vast, untapped mineral resources in space.

“What we’re trying to do is get to a point where a large mining company would consider investing in a venture like this,” he says. “At the moment, it’s not really on their radar. The issue is the risks that they perceive in this type of venture are not risks that they’ve faced before, and are not risks that they’re willing to run, or contemplate. There’s too much uncertainty.”

The UNSW project aims to be an important demonstration of the feasibility of what Dempster calls “in situ resource utilisation.” This is where key minerals are mined, processed and used in space, without having to transport minerals and fuel to and from Earth, which can be logistically complicated and financially costly.

A self-sufficient mining project in space, which is powered by resources from other mines in outer space, could dramatically reduce the costs of setting up future mining projects, and contribute towards the United Launch Alliance’s prediction that the commercial space business will be worth $2.7tn by 2048.

A Launchpad for future missions

In addition to being a proof of concept, the proposed mission could be a launching point for future operations, with Dempster identifying Mars as a logical next step in humanity’s attempts to mine planets in outer space.

“Mars might be a medium-term goal, but to get to Mars you might have to get to the Moon first,” he says. “They’ve done studies which show that there’s a business case type-argument for setting up a stepping-off point on the Moon, or in orbit around the Moon. Suggesting that that is the best way to get to Mars anyway.”

Dempster is also aware that his team’s work could set a precedent for how future operations could be planned and conducted. He talks about taking a “systems engineering approach” to the logistical and technological challenges of the operation, focusing on how each piece of machinery and each process fits into the larger strategy.

Automated robots used to extract the ice from the Moon, for example, are both an effective technological solution and one that fits the mission’s broader aim of supporting mining projects that can operate independently of input from Earth.

The Wild West of space

There is a sharp contrast between mining on Earth, where companies have to comply with national and local legislation in order to be given permission to extract minerals, and space mining, where there is a notable lack of clear legislation on the issue. While individual countries such as the US and Luxembourg are adopting space mining laws, these generally apply to companies operating within their borders, rendering them almost useless in space, where national governments have very little authority. The UN’s 1967 Outer Space Treaty remains vague and outdated.

“Who has jurisdiction over what happens out there?” says Dempster when asked about the legal implications of space mining. “Who enforces the law? These are the questions that are, at the moment, pretty much unanswered.

“It is going to be the Wild West until the laws are tested.”

Without strong legislation in place, the mineral wealth of space could have a potentially destabilising impact on the Earth’s economy. The prohibitively high cost of launching vessels into space and mining minerals for use means that this new gold rush will be one contested by individuals and companies already among Earth’s financial and political elite.

However, there is time for the world’s decision-makers to draft the necessary legislation, as Dempster predicts that simply proving the effectiveness of space mining technology, let alone rolling it out across the stars, is a decade and many challenges away.

“I think a lot of the technology will be proven in ten years,” he says. “When people say, ‘How long is it going to take to be doing an off-Earth mining operation?’ which everyone always asks, the answer is decades rather than years.”