In Brief

How space mining could change the world

Russia bids to join Luxembourg as second country to adopt legal regulations relating to outer space mining

Russia is bidding to join Luxembourg in mining asteroids in space, raising the spectre of a new space race for minerals.

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova said the country had offered the small duchy, which became the first country in the world to adopt legal regulations relating to mining in space, “a framework agreement on cooperation in the use of (mining) exploration in space”.

What do they want in space?

Metals such as iron, cobalt, nickel and platinum, the key component used in microchips and electrical circuitry, are abundant on asteroids.

With an estimated $700bn worth of mineral available in the asteroid belt, “companies are being set up all around the world to plunder these resources in a gold rush for the 21st century”, says Science Focus.

Mitch Hunter-Scullion, founder of the UK-based Asteroid Mining Company, says: “It’s the next boom industry. Once you set up the infrastructure then the possibilities are almost infinite. There’s an astronomical amount of money to be made by those bold enough to rise to the challenge of the asteroid rush.”

What are the challenges?

At present, the major obstacle faced by commercial miners is the technical challenge of bringing large quantities of materials back to earth from outer space. Reuters says: “The focus of entrepreneurs pursuing space mining is instead on using space minerals to create interplanetary ‘gas stations’ that will build, support and fuel colonies on Mars.”

Another problem is space law, which does not explicitly address the issue of mining asteroids.

“Currently, the law addressing space mining is extremely unclear and undergoing major legal and political changes,” says Joanne Gabrynowicz, professor of space law at the Beijing Institute of Technology School of Law.

There are five international treaties on space legislation, dominated by the 1967 Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, which prohibits outer space from being used in a military capacity.

The chances of every country in the world agreeing on an international space policy are slim, according to Frans von der Dunk, professor of space law at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

“By now in view if the general political climate it is highly unlikely that a treaty carrying the consent of the major spacefaring nations will be achieved,” he told Wired.

In the absence of an international consensus, “the prospect of several countries passing their own legislation raises the specter of space mining becoming a new wild west land grab”, says Reuters.

But Science Focus argues “there is more to space mining than a gold rush for the sci-fi age... taking mining off Earth could help relieve humanity’s destruction of our planet’s environment”.

So it is good for the world?

Not necessarily, according to a study from Tel Aviv University, which concluded that “the realisation of space exploitation will disrupt world politics”.

“The researchers describe a situation in which one private company wins the race to space mining, immediately reducing the value of once precious commodities on Earth,” says Wired, warning that “the situation is not unlikely to happen in the future given current advances in technology”.

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