Not so long ago, the head of Planetary Resources, Chris Levitsky, promised that in the 2020s, for the first time, humanity will receive valuable mineral resources outside the Earth. Naked Science figured out who, what and on what basis will be mined in space.
Space commercialization began in the early days of near-earth orbit: the first commercial satellite, Telstar 1, launched in 1962, providing television, fax, telephone and telegraph services for AT&T and Bell Telephone customers.
Today, devices operating in near space are already generating billions of dollars in profits, supplying photographs and geolocation data, navigation and telecommunications services. A number of projects are nearing the finish line to create a tourism industry that will allow anyone who is willing to shell out an unforgettable experience of suborbital and even orbital flights. But still, when we talk about the riches of the Universe, we mean something much more serious. The first mention of the development of mineral resources in science fiction dates back to 1898, when Garrett Service's story "Edison Conquers Mars" was published. In 1979, in the cult film Alien, the Nostromo crew is already doing this in earnest: according to the plot, a spaceship tows 20 million tons of ore collected on an asteroid to Earth. The development of these resources is also familiar to fans of computer games, being widely used, for example, in EVE Online.
Silver and gold, palladium and platinum, iridium and tungsten, nickel and molybdenum - asteroids visiting near-Earth space contain colossal amounts of rare metals, the demand for which only increases with the development of industry, and prices in world markets are constantly growing. Their development can be carried out on the spot, overtaking the space body in flight, or you can first tow the asteroid closer and work without unnecessary haste in the immediate vicinity of the Earth.
Some of these resources can be used to meet the needs of long-term space missions, and some will be useful for the "earth" industry. If you use them in the construction of space stations, the price of such projects will drop significantly, because tons of structural materials will not need to be put into orbit. Asteroids can be an invaluable source of minerals for agriculture. This is primarily about phosphorus.
Of particular interest are icy celestial bodies - both comets and their degenerated nuclei, which can serve as an excellent source of water. For any manned missions, not to mention promising inhabited bases on the Moon and Mars, this is a key resource that can provide them not only with the necessary moisture, but also oxygen, and even oxygen-hydrogen fuel for jet engines.
According to modern concepts, asteroids are something like construction waste left over from the formation of the Sun and its planets. The lion's share of protoplanetary matter entered the composition of large bodies of the solar system, but scattered fragments remained everywhere, which have been preserved for about 6 billion years. Many of them fill the main asteroid belt, orbiting the Sun between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Others fell into the "gravitational traps" of large bodies and accompany them in motion - such Trojan asteroids are known from Jupiter, Mars, Uranus, Neptune and even Earth. In 2005, the Japanese probe Hayabusa approached the near-Earth asteroid Itokawa and, although some maneuvers were unsuccessful, as a result of several attempts, it took samples of its soil with a device resembling a small vacuum cleaner. The history of Hayabusa turned out to be full of dangers: in the course of work, it damaged one of the engines, survived several serious failures of the on-board computer and solar panels. However, the heroic apparatus overcame everything and in 2010 returned to Earth, dropping a capsule with a valuable cargo, and for the first time scientists had the opportunity to directly study the composition of a real asteroid. In 2014after him went into space the Hayabusa-2 mission, which after four years of flight will approach the asteroid 1999 JU3 and in 2020 should deliver samples of its soil.
Finally, thousands and thousands move along more complex, often highly elongated trajectories, sometimes getting closer to the Sun, then moving away from it at great distances. Some of them in this flight approach the Earth, and sometimes collide with it, representing one of the most serious threats to life on the planet. However, this does not happen often, and moments of relatively close flights give excellent chances to catch some valuable celestial body.
Unfortunately, not all asteroids are of real value. Manned missions to them have not yet been conducted, but we know their composition quite well thanks to spectrographic studies, during which scientists study the spectrum of radiation reflected by the surface of asteroids, and, depending on the set of absorbed and reflected frequencies, draw conclusions about the substances present in it. In this way, the same rare earth and noble metals, as well as iron-nickel ore, were found in them. Not the largest asteroid can contain so much of it that it will be enough to provide the entire heavy industry of the world for a year or two.
Depending on the spectral class, asteroids are classified as carbon (C-group), silicon (S-group) or iron (X-group) - these are the elements that make up their basis. However, there are plenty of other impurities, and corporations that are interested not only in ice or iron will find something to profit from here. According to a rough estimate given by NASA experts, if we recalculate the value of the resources hidden in the asteroid belt, at the current market rate it will exceed 500 quintillion (!) Dollars. And according to the famous "preacher" of the development of these resources, John Lewis, an average iron asteroid 1 km in diameter may contain 30 million tons of nickel, 1.5 million tons of cobalt and 7500 tons of platinum. The price of the last of these metals alone exceeds $ 150 billion - just breathtaking!
Miners in orbit
Indeed, such enormous resources will easily cover any costs of organizing a "mining" space mission. After all, even the 400-meter International Space Station, which is considered the most expensive science and technology project in history, cost only a few tens of billions of dollars. The costs for the ITER international tokamak are estimated at approximately the same level. The organization of a permanent inhabited base on Mars will be noticeably more expensive, and if we are faced with the need to regularly lift from Earth, launch into orbit and lower to Mars tons and tons of materials, supplies and water, the price can skyrocket already in a figurative sense.
However, if we intend to mine ore directly on the asteroid, we will have to provide for the "miners" working here. But in the almost complete absence of gravity, they will be able to wield such volumes of material that are not always within the power of earthly excavators. On the other hand, this is a separate and difficult problem for any such projects, because robots, machines, and people will have to somehow attach themselves to the surface of the asteroid in order not to be carried away.
The proper rotation of such bodies does not simplify the matter either: it is possible that before organizing a mining enterprise here, rocket motors will have to be installed on the surface of the asteroid, which can stop this rotation. All this, of course, sounds rather fantastic, but many aspects of space mines, where the development and primary processing of mineral resources would be carried out, can be assessed quite reasonably and realistically based on knowledge of modern technologies.
The power supply will most likely have to be organized relying on solar panels.The enterprise does not have to require human presence: robots are much more likely to take care of all the worries. This is both safer and easier in terms of providing the mines with the necessary resources. The mining will be carried out by open methods - there is no need to drill mines in tiny celestial bodies. More efficient options include extracting ore debris using powerful magnets or by evaporating asteroid soil.
According to John Lewis, already familiar to us, the ore will be loaded into closed (so as not to scatter) conveyors and fed for processing or directly into transport modules, which will then be able to pick up regularly arriving cargo ships. Finally, it is necessary to provide options for evacuation from the surface of the asteroid: as soon as valuable resources run out, the enterprise should ideally be assembled and moved to a new place of work.
In April 2012, a small but extremely powerful group of Google cofounders Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, director and producer James Cameron, and several lesser-known billionaires, announced the creation of the first company in human history to exploit space resources. … Planetary Resources is managed by renowned entrepreneurs Eric Anderson and Peter Diamandis. Previously, the first of them ran a company that carried out tourist flights to the ISS, and the second became the founder of the X Prize "aerospace" fund.
The first task, announced by Planetary Resources, is to create a commercial filling station in low-earth orbit that will be able to provide everyone with water, as well as oxygen and hydrogen obtained from it. The source of water should be a suitable celestial body that can be towed to the place of work. The company promised that the "refueling" will start working in 2020, although experts have met these statements with a fair amount of skepticism.
Meanwhile, competitors are stepping on the heels of Planetary Resources. The founder of Deep Space Industries, David Gump, promised to start searching for a suitable asteroid in 2017–2018. and start developing it in 2023, although so far nothing has been heard about the success of at least the first part of the plan. Kepler Energy and Space Engineering (KESE) is going to enter easier: based on the solutions and technologies tested by the Hayabusa probe and the "comet" missions Rosetta and Dawn, the developers plan to create a relatively simple module that will extract about 40 tons of valuable ore and deliver it to The earth.
Interested in similar projects and NASA, and the Agency for Advanced Projects (NIAC), which is working on the conceptual possibilities of "mining" in space. As you can see, all these projects are mainly American. The United States continues to lead in space, but does this mean that they have exclusive economic rights to it?
In 2015, the US House of Representatives approved a new "space act" that officially allows US citizens to conduct commercial exploration and exploitation of space resources, including water and mineral resources. In July of the same year, the resolution passed through the Senate, and at the end of November it was signed by President Barack Obama. And although the document emphasizes that thereby the United States does not pretend to extend its jurisdiction to other space bodies, a lot of noise has risen all over the world.
Indeed, until now, space remains largely undeveloped by jurisprudence. The legal norms in force here are primarily determined by the international treaty on outer space, which was adopted in 1967 and has now been ratified in 98 countries of the world. In essence and spirit, this document goes back to traditional maritime law, more precisely, to that section of it that defines the relationship between ships and their crews while in neutral waters.The provisions of the Outer Space Treaty were supplemented by the Agreement on the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, proclaimed by the UN in 1979. The document extended the effect of international law to the Moon and all other cosmic bodies, with the exception of the Earth, and called them the common heritage of mankind. It declares the principles of their exclusively peaceful use, equal rights to study and development and the impossibility of extending the sovereignty of any country to these objects. The agreement turned out to be remarkable, with the exception of one instructive nuance: it was ratified by only about a dozen countries. This list includes Australia, Mexico and the Philippines, but it does not include a single truly powerful space power.
Simply put, any ship (be it sea or space) must fly the flag of any country, and everything that happens on board belongs to its jurisdiction, and no one can have any exclusive rights to the resources of neutral waters. Despite the fact that many space projects are implemented jointly, this leads to funny incidents.
So, some time ago, the United States, taking on the main financial concerns for the construction of the ISS, tried to establish its own laws at the station, having stumbled upon a categorical "no" of all other participants in the concession, including Russia. “It was decided that each state has the right to the modules that it has erected,” explains Franz von der Dank, an eminent lawyer and specialist in maritime and air law. "So, in essence, on the ISS we have a piece of Europe attached to a part of Japan, and so on." As a result, many legal issues have to be resolved on an individual basis.
Subsequently, many aspects of the Outer Space Treaty were supplemented during the work of the UN International Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. Under the auspices of the organization in the late 1960s and 1970s. Agreements were adopted on the rescue and return of astronauts and space objects, as well as conventions on compensation for damage caused by space objects and on the international registration of their launches.
As we can see, despite more than half a century of astronautics history, the legal side of the issue has not been worked out at all. Entire areas of jurisprudence, including labor, commercial and, moreover, criminal law, remain completely uncovered. Whose patent law covers developments and discoveries made by international teams in orbit? Who will be responsible if one member of such a team beats another? And most importantly, who and why has the right to extract billions of dollars in profits from cosmic bodies? All this will have to be negotiated along with the elaboration of the technical side of the issue of "mining" on asteroids. And it is unlikely that it will be easier to create robots and spaceships.