Is Space Mining the Best Option to Face Climate Change?By Paloma Duran | Wed, 11/03/2021 - 11:37
Going to net zero means that more mining is needed. Experts have said that the current supply cannot support the necessary metals demand for the green transition. As a result, new mining alternatives have gained greater relevance, among them is space mining. Several countries, including Mexico, have shown their interest in this alternative, creating a new space race.
“The solar system can support a billion times greater industry than we have on Earth. When you go to vastly larger scales of civilization, beyond the scale that a planet can support, then the types of things that civilization can do are incomprehensible to us … We would be able to promote healthy societies all over the world at the same time that we would be reducing the environmental burden on the Earth,” said Dr. Phil Metzger, Planetary Scientist at the University of Central Florida.
Currently, there are several attempts to address global warming and transition to a net zero carbon economy. There has been an increasing interest in renewable energy and infrastructure, which has increased demand for various minerals, especially lithium, cobalt, nickel, copper and rare earth elements. However, according to experts, the world is close to entering a metals supercycle, where demand will exceed available supply, causing prices to skyrocket.
Consequently, the mining industry has sought alternatives to achieve the required supply. Options include recycling and improved mine waste management, sea mining and space mining. The latter is considered one of the alternatives with the greatest potential. However, a regulatory framework is still lacking and there is almost no experience in this regard.
Despite the lack of knowledge regarding space mining, it has become a very attractive option since the planet is running out of resources. While some people believe that land-based mining is cheaper than space mining, experts believe this may change in the long term. Furthermore, within the solar system there are countless bodies rich in minerals, ores and elements that will accelerate the fight against climate change.
“There will come a point when there is nothing left to mine on the surface, prompting mines to reach even further below. But even those resources are destined to run out and so we will aim toward ocean mining, which already has specific technologies that are being developed. Nevertheless, even those mines are limited as well. The mine of the future, which today may seem unlikely, will no longer be on our planet. There will be a time when space mining will be as common as an open leach mine,” Eder Lugo, Minerals Head at Siemens, told MBN.
More than 150 million asteroids measuring approximately 100m are believed to be in the inner solar system alone. In addition, astronomers have also identified abundant minerals near the Earth’s space and the Main Asteroid Belt. There are three main groups into which asteroids are divided: C- type, S- type, and M- type. The last two groups are the most abundant in minerals such as gold, platinum, cobalt, zinc, tin, lead, indium, silver, copper and rare earth metals.
"Energy is limited here. Within just a few hundred years, you will have to cover all of the landmass of Earth in solar cells. So, what are you going to do? Well, what I think you are going to do is you are going to move out in space … all of our heavy industry will be moved off-planet and Earth will be zoned residential and light-industrial,” said Jeff Bezos, Founder of Amazon and the Space Launch Provider Blue Origin.
Steps Toward Space Mining
Before space mining begins, the industry must first identify, catalog and evaluate asteroids depending on the value of their minerals. Subsequently, the sector will need to build infrastructure in the Low Earth Orbit and beyond to carry out operations. The most economical option would be to build this infrastructure in space and thus be able to transport it more easily to the Moon, Mars and the Asteroid Belt. Once the equipment and infrastructure are ready, mining can begin through different techniques, such as surface mining, capturing asteroids in networks and bringing them closer to Earth, applying heat to asteroids to collect the minerals, among others.
According to a study from the Space Policy Journal, The use of extraterrestrial resources to facilitate space science and exploration, there have been important advances in the field of robots and nanotechnology, which would allow a closed supply chain through the use of self-replicating robots in a few decades.
However, before delving into space mining operations, the industry must first face another challenge, which is the lack of a cohesive framework to govern mining in outer space. In 1967, the Outer Space Treaty was signed and is currently considered the space law. However, there are many gaps that still need to be addressed. The treaty establishes that no nation can claim any celestial body for itself. However, the text is not clear about the resources on those bodies. In addition, there are gaps regarding tax payment schemes.
In 1979, the UN Office of Space Affairs promoted the Moon Agreement, which would have created an international body to oversee and authorize the extraction of minerals in space. However, the US disagreed, causing this effort to fail. Subsequently, the US pushed the 2015 Space Act to allow private mining companies to hold titles to minerals mined from space.
The current agreements have not been sufficient to establish a reliable framework for all countries. Key players like NASA have pushed for new legal frames such as the Artemis Accords, an intergovernmental agreement signed by most nations with experience in space, which says that the extraction of resources in space is not the same as national appropriation.
In April, space mining advocates met in Luxembourg to discuss the international legal framework, as well as research options. Although efforts continue, to have an effective legal framework more key actors must participate in these discussions.
In the meantime, experts have warned about a new space race, especially among US, China and Russia. The latter two are expected to join forces in an attempt to stop US from dominating the majority of the space commerce. The US has already announced NASA’s US$28 billion plan to launch a mission to the moon this year, followed by a crewed flyby in 2023 and lunar landing in 2024. Meanwhile, Russia is pursuing plans to return to space and establish a long-term base on the Moon.
Other countries have joined the race for space minerals. Luxembourg was one of the first countries to show interest for mining space. Its Space Agency (LSA) seeks to accelerate collaboration to boost exploration and commercialization of space resources. In addition, the country has plans to begin extracting minerals from the moon in 2025. In Latin America, Mexico is taking a key role in the development of space mining. Airbus Defense and Space, the Mexican Space Agency (AEM) and Mexican startup Dereum Labs recently announced they are joining forces to develop technologies to extract lunar resources and build the industrial ecosystem necessary to build this technology in Mexico.
“This agreement represents the first step in a fruitful collaboration with Mexico in space activities. Being able to extract and process lunar resources is essential to sustain life over the long term on the Moon. This collaboration brings together the right partners with the latest technologies and capabilities for a clearer horizon in lunar exploration,” said Víctor de la Vela, Head of Airbus in Latin America and the Caribbean.
“Asteroid mining will be one of the means through which humanity expands into space. Saving planet Earth could very well happen as a result, but only in the long run. Between growing demand, the danger posed by climate change and the possible need to look off-world for human survival, asteroid mining may be an inevitability. In other words, it is not a question of can we or should we, but when will we?” said Matthew S. Williams, Author and Writer for Universe Today and the curator of the publication’s Guide to Space section.