A DISCUSSION OFNew Policies Needed to Advance Space Mining
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In “New Policies Needed to Advance Space Mining” (Issues, Winter 2019), Ian Christensen, Ian Lange, George Sowers, Angel Abbud-Madrid, and Morgan D. Bazilian provide an excellent overview of the policy and legal challenges posed by space resources activities. The authors, experts in the field, clearly explain the challenges in space resources utilization that subsequently lead to the suggested need for new policies. Their main claim, that policies should be in place in order for space mining to evolve in a sustainable manner, is supported by four specific policy recommendations. The latter correspond to the discussions that are presently taking place in various forums and call for a holistic approach to space mining that will take into account not only the present state of technology and resource needs but also future advancement. Except from describing these recommendations, the authors do not suggest ways to initiate these policies, and although this might be outside the scope of their current article, a further elaboration of these recommendations would be welcomed.
One of the interesting points the authors raise is the identification of a major source of tension in the discussions on space mining; that is, the occasional misconception between commercial space mining activity and the general use of space resources. Whereas outer space is not subject to appropriation, all nations are free to explore and use it, according to international space law. We do not, however, concur with the authors’ statement that commercial space resource activity “requires some possession right (not necessarily permanent) to regions in space.” Though possession rights in the resources themselves are evidently needed, this is not allowed for “regions in space” as per Article II of the Outer Space Treaty.
By presenting various perspectives on the current status of the industry, it becomes clear that the above mentioned misconception might not be fully justified. Despite the hardships of the two initial pioneering space mining companies (in fact, both Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries no longer exist, having being acquired by other firms), several smaller private initiatives are currently developing, such as PTScientists in Germany and the Asteroid Mining Corporation in the United Kingdom. The development of an appropriate framework for the conduct of space resource activities is therefore urgent, and it is essential, as recommended, to involve industrial stakeholders in policy discussions.
With regard to the authors’ use of the term “space mining,” we note that the term has been considered to have negative connotation, as it might be suggestive of outer space use that does not correspond to the cooperative character of space activities. The preferred terminology is “space resources activities.”
We agree with the authors’ observation that space resources utilization is now generally seen as not prohibited under current international space law. Their article underlines the importance of interdisciplinary approach and interaction among different stakeholders on national, regional, and international levels in addressing the need for a framework to govern space resource activities. Law usually succeeds technological development in the field of space activities, and space resource utilization is a rare example of almost parallel development. Alongside the need for new policies as presented in this article, it should also be underlined that the momentum for policy to encourage the sustainable development of space resource activities should not be missed.
Christensen et al. make the case for clarifying and streamlining domestic and international legal and regulatory policies to create a new industrial sector focused on space-based resource extraction. The authors are on the money when noting that space mining, or rather space resource extraction (not every resource in space is mined, an example being space-based solar power), is an important national priority for a variety of reasons, not least of which is ensuring US global leadership across all domains in space. The authors end their article by recommending four principles to guide policy formulation to enable the creation of a vibrant new industry.
The exclusive emphasis on policy and regulatory instruments puts the cart before the horse. The authors themselves acknowledge that the economic case for resource extraction is at best inchoate. Recent dissolution of asteroid mining companies such as Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries shows that the state of technology and business viability of resource extraction is still nascent. Given these challenges, focus on policy and legal guidance, especially at the United Nations level, seems premature.
Although policy and legal frameworks could be helpful in developing global awareness, it would be most useful to promote policy developments in concert with two other dimensions: establishing the value of space resource extraction and ensuring technology development. The term value does not refer to commercial companies being able to make money (which we have already seen is not likely to happen in the near-term), but to the tangible societal value—including economic value—of space resource extraction. Given the falling cost of launch, it may not make sense in every possible architectural configuration to extract water (to make propellant, for example) from asteroids or the Moon and to have propellant depots in space. Part of establishing value means that we need to identify which architectures help make the case for space resource extraction and examine how realistic they are. For example, if the National Aeronautics and Space Administration human missions to Mars use chemical-solar or nuclear propulsion, the amount of chemical propellant required would not be enough to potentially cover the cost of a space-based propellant extraction system.
To examine the economic value, we need to know the cost of a space-based propellant extraction system, which has many steps: prospecting, transportation to and from celestial bodies of interest, excavation of raw materials, processing raw materials into a useable product, storing the product, and finally, use of the product by consumers. Other than prospecting, hardly any of these technologies can currently be considered ready. Technologies for excavation, processing, and storage are furthest behind. There is a clear need to create and mature technology for each of these stages.
It goes without saying that the economic value and technology development are iterative activities. We need to know the technology that will be used, say to extract water from the surface of the Moon, to be able to cost it, to ensure it will, at least eventually, be lower cost than carrying water from Earth.
Together with establishing a clear case for space-based resource extraction, government agencies and private entities, including universities and commercial companies, need to develop a plan to support and conduct the R&D required to take technology to high levels of readiness across all of the extraction and use fronts. As technologies mature, the community can engage more deeply to address the policy, legal, and regulatory issues, which, as the authors point out, are not without their own challenges.
IDA Science and Technology Policy Institute