Despite the fact that there haven’t yet been real flights to asteroids in order to conduct geological exploration and test mining methods and everything is at the stage of discussion and development, the growing volume of investments as well as the interest of business companies and entire states indicate that the «battle for asteroids» has not only started, but also is running at full tilt here on Earth, and is ready to spill over to space in the very near future.
The already established space mining market, valued in 2018 at $ 0.56 billion, will grow, according to expert opinion (по оценкам экспертов), to 3.28 billion by 2026. The growth is associated with a large number of ambitious applicants for space profits, who are preparing or only planning to develop their own missions. Among the participants of the future race are Boeing, Virgin Galactic, Airbus S.A.S., SpaceX company of Elon Musk; the players at the national level are NASA, European Space Agency, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and China National Space Administration. Private companies, such as Deep Space Industries Inc. and Moon Express, are already testing their own remote sensing devices and landing modules in collaboration with NASA, a private space exploration initiative is becoming a trend right in front of our eyes.
NASA is planning to launch its probe to the asteroid 16 Pshyhe in 2022 in order that the solar-powered vehicle arrives there in 2026 to analyze the feasibility of resource development on the asteroid. As it is reported by NASA news agency, the probe is also expected to detect precious metals, «tons of gold and platinum». The asteroid 16 Pshyhe is situated in the asteroid belt located between Mars and Jupiter, as well as the rest of the potential targets of claimants upon space wealth.
At the present time, the most promising for mining are M-type asteroids, which are comprised of metals, including platinum group metals. Such asteroids are located in the central part of the belt and represent only a small fraction of 8% of the studied ones. It is on the development of them the bets are made by the participants in the race. Space geologists are interested in not only gold and platinum, but also in nickel, cobalt and iron, which are also a potential mining target.
Many companies, not only related to the construction of spacecraft, but also software developers and environmental experts are already involved in the future industry. Geologists are working on the development of mining methods, offering different approaches that can be used in challenging environment, considering the low gravity, lack of atmosphere and remoteness of the work.
Performance of auger drilling, scaling or capture of large particles from the surface is possible on some types of asteroids, which are essentially supposed to be «piles of rubble». It is also supposed to use the Monge method, a chemical bonding of nickel under certain conditions, in order to extract it in its pure form, which was used on an industrial scale for nickel mining in the nineteenth century.
In the United States, an experiment on the extraction of water from an asteroid material by heating a dry rocky analogue substance up to 150 degrees was conducted. The hydroxyl released in the form of steam filled the container for collecting samples, which also indicates such a possibility on asteroids. This experiment was conducted by the University of Central Florida in collaboration with several private companies investing in the future development of asteroids.
The space geologists have three basic concepts for asteroids mining: delivery of raw materials from an asteroid to Earth for processing, processing of raw materials at the mining site in order that only payload arrives on Earth, along with that the fuel needed for the return flight can be produced on an asteroid.
The third concept is delivery of the asteroid itself to a safe orbit of the Moon or the Earth, which hypothetically will make it possible to extract maximum of mineral resources. It’s worth mentioning that for all the ambitious plans of the parties concerned, the current economic situation has allowed to perform the study of asteroids so far only on a national scale.
The scientists from the USA, the European Community and Japan successfully landed the modules Near (USA) in 2001, Hayabusa (Japan) in 2005 and Rozetta (EU) in 2012 on the asteroids, but only the USA and Japan were able to deliver samples of materials to Earth.
And what’s about the legislation? The international legislation in the field of space exploration consists of several international treaties and national laws of states. The regulating authority is the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, which has adopted five international space agreements and five UN declarations. As of today, more than one hundred states are involved in the discussion of legislation in this field.
The agreements cover key issues, such as arms control, refusal of division of territories in space, freedom of reconnaissance, liability for damage, safety and rescue of astronauts and spacecraft, non-interference in space activities and environmental protection, notifications and registration of objects in space, activities and dispute settlement procedure.
In exchange for guarantees from spacefaring nations, the countries not engaged in independent space exploration agreed with proposals by the United States and the Soviet Union to consider outer space as a common territory (res communis) that does not belong to any state. Thereby, the international space law is able to regulate new types of space production, private space transportation, commercial space-launch complexes as well as commercial space stations and colonies.
In accordance with the «Outer Space Treaty» and the «Agreement on celestial bodies», the development of mineral resources outside the Earth related to the extraction and export of natural resources is undoubtedly permissible. Once extracted, these natural resources can be delivered into possession, sold or used for scientific purposes.
Space law enforcement agencies usually understand that the extraction of space resources is also acceptable for private companies with the goal of making a profit. However, international space law prohibits the right of ownership over the territories outside Earth.
Certainly, such legislative opportunities stimulate the ambitions of both state-owned and private companies, understanding that future profits can exceed all experts' forecasts and change the alignment of financial opportunities for those who still remain on Earth.