In space, no one can hear you mine: NASA’s blueprint for space mining
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In space, no one can hear you mine: NASA’s blueprint for space mining

By Matthew Hall 09 Jun 2021

We look at the geopolitical dimension of space mining and what the future may hold for private space enterprises.

In space, no one can hear you mine: NASA’s blueprint for space mining
Credit: Detlev Van Ravenswaay via Science Photo Library

In the DVD commentary of the 1998 Michael Bay classic Armageddon, actor Ben Affleck mocks the fundamental concept of the film: that in the event of an asteroid on a cataclysmic collision course with Earth, NASA would employ oil drillers, train them as astronauts, and have them drill a nuclear bomb sized hole in said asteroid to blow it up before it can crash into the planet and wipe us all out.

Affleck says he asked Bay: “Why is it easier to train oil drillers to become astronauts than to train astronauts to become oil drillers?

“He told me to shut the f*** up,” Affleck recalls. “So that was the end of that talk. He was like, ‘You know, Ben, just shut up, okay? This is the real plan, alright? I was like, ‘You mean it’s a real plan at NASA to train oil drillers?’ He was like, ‘Just shut your mouth!”

More than 20 years later, NASA does have plans to be drilling holes in outer space. Not for dangerous, explosive, ill-conceived plans of saving humanity, though; for an even more noble pursuit: private profit.

The dawn of the commercial space age

There’s been a buzz around the commercial space industry for years now, with private ventures such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX looking closer to taking mankind to Mars than any public institution’s space programme, and big talk of lunar settlements and earth-orbiting hotels being the tourist destinations of the future.

The same is true for mining in the final frontier: eye-watering estimates suggest the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter holds mineral wealth equivalent to about $100bn for every person on Earth. Space exploration and space tourism increasingly look like folly compared to the money-spinner of simply plonking a drill down on an asteroid and pulling out the palladiums, rhodiums, and other -iums contained within.

The problem is, nobody has managed to get a drill off the planet yet, let alone figured out how to make a commercially viable mining operation entirely off-world.

NASA is hoping to accelerate that. The Artemis Accords, signed by eight nations in October 2020, are designed to “establish a practical set of principles” guiding space exploration that can be shared across spacefaring nations. The accords also aim to provide a legal framework for companies to own the resources they mine in outer space.

The document sets out standards for mining on the Moon and other celestial bodies, as well as protocols for avoiding conflict over space activities. NASA’s Artemis programme, from which the accords get their name, aims to put the next man and the first woman on the Moon – and eventually take mankind further. As part of the programme, NASA expects it will have to extract materials on the moon.

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty explicitly forbids nations from claiming ownership of a celestial body – the Moon, for example, is a “global commons”. The policy of the US and other nations pursuing space mining is that countries and companies can own the resources extracted from celestial bodies without staking a claim to the celestial body itself.

The US’ approach to the issue was summed up by NASA administrator Jim Bridenstein in a press call ahead of the announcement that the Artemis Accords had been signed: “Article II of the Outer Space Treaty says that you cannot appropriate the Moon for national sovereignty. We fully agree with that and embrace it.

“We also believe that, just like in the ocean, you can extract resources from the ocean. But that doesn’t mean you own the ocean. You should be able to extract resources from the Moon. Own the resources but not own the Moon.”

International response to the Artemis Accords: a Western power play?

While the Artemis Accords are, on the face of it, a document outlining how signatories will cooperate in space activities going forward – prospective partners in NASA’s Artemis programme will be expected to join the list of signatories – the bulk of attention (and criticism) has been levelled at the policy around space resources. Coming right at the end of the document, cynics might accuse NASA of burying the lede.

The perception that the Artemis Accords are an attempt at the US dictating international policy before an actual international body – like the UN’s Office for Outer Space Affairs – isn’t hugely helped by one of the first signatories being Luxembourg.

Luxembourg, with its population of around 600,000 people, set its sights on becoming the European hub for space mining in 2016 when the country agreed to buy a major stake in US-based asteroid mining company Planetary Resources. Luxembourg has also opened a $225m line of credit for space companies that set up European headquarters in the country. Its space agency, which launched in 2018, seeks to boost commercial utilisation of resources from celestial bodies.

In short, Luxembourg has plans to punch above its weight by getting in on space mining early. Its involvement in the Artemis Accords has given critics the perception that the accords are an attempt by Western powers to unilaterally dictate the use of space resources on their terms.

Notably absent from the Artemis Accords signatories is Russia, which, despite tensions with the US on this planet, has been one of America’s major partners for space exploration going back decades. Sergey Saveliev, deputy general director for international cooperation at Russian space agency Roscosmos, likened the accords to colonialism: “There have already been examples in history when one country decided to start seizing territories in its interest — everyone remembers what came of it.”

For what it’s worth, NASA has rejected these criticisms.

“The principles of the accords reflect the simple contention that nations can extract and utilise space resources, as explicitly contemplated by the Outer Space Treaty,” NASA spokesperson Sean Potter says.

“What these principles do is ensure that space resource extraction and other activities will be conducted in a manner that is transparent and consistent with the Outer Space Treaty in order to achieve the ultimate goal of the Artemis Accords which is to avoid conflict before it happens.”

While the US had been hopeful that Russia may eventually come to sign the accords, continuing tensions over issues both in outer space and closer to home haven’t enthused Russia. With the agreement between Roscosmos and its international partners on the International Space Station coming to an end in 2024, head of the space agency Dmitry Rogozin has indicated that Russia has its sights set on readying its own space station by 2025.

A continuing split between the two major spacefaring nations could see differences of opinion over space resources escalate to something more.

What does this mean for prospective private space miners?

NASA has a history of working with private contractors for space activities and has recognised that the goals of the Artemis programme can only be reached with help from the private sector.

While nation states that seek to play a role in the Artemis programme have to sign up to the accords, we don’t live in a world where private individuals put their names on international treaties – and that potentially becomes more complex when said private individual takes to the stars.

Three of the eight initial signatories to the Artemis Accords have already started legal work to ensure that private companies can own the resources they mine: in addition to the US and Luxembourg, the head of the United Arab Emirates Space Agency revealed in 2019 that the UAE was pursuing legislation to this effect.

Essentially, any space mining companies that can establish a foothold in the industry will then be selling its wares to the various space agencies pursuing the ultimate goal of landing on Mars.

There are fears that opening up space to private interests and profit-seekers is incompatible with the Artemis Accords’ stated aims of ensuring peaceful and sustainable off-world operations.

The history of the mining industry on this planet could show us a glimpse of the coming race to mine space resources – it’s never been an industry held in esteem for its gentle regard to the environment on Earth, so why would it be any different on a rock hundreds of thousands of kilometres away?

In theory, a company that wins a contract with a signatory to the accords will be expected to work in compliance with the stipulations of the accords – but it would be the corresponding state held accountable for that, rather than the company itself.

“The accords reflect commitments among governments and do not obligate private sector activities when such activities are not being performed at the behest of national governments,” says Potter. “However, we do hope that the principles of the accords will have a positive impact on the private sector.

“We believe that reaffirming the simple contention that companies can extract and utilise space resources, enjoying the fruits of their labour, that operations can be conducted without fear of harmful interference, and supporting interoperable systems, will all combine to create an environment that is conducive to robust private sector development and growth.”