As the consequences of environmental degradation and the depletion of natural resources become more and more serious, scientists are placing greater emphasis not only on the sustainable use of the resources we already have, but also on identification of new methods of obtaining resources. For example, scientists are researching new but controversial resource extraction techniques such as hydraulic fracturing. One particular solution suggested, asteroid mining, is literally out of this world.
Although repeatedly proposed, the first tangible effort to to permit asteroid mining exploration and development came in 2012 from Planetary Resources, a Seattle-based aerospace company. Planetary resources were then closely monitoring by a similar company, Deep Space Industries. Both groups have made significant contributions to the field, designing satellites that have identified around 15,000 asteroids with significant potential for mining.
Opportunities in Asteroid Mining
Generally, asteroid mining remains hypothetical, mainly due to its exorbitant cost. Although precise estimates of the cost of commercial mining remain unclear, similarities can be drawn between these programs and NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission, which seeks to obtain samples from a near-Earth asteroid named Bennu. Although it is planned to bring back only between 400 grams and 1 kilogram of material, the mission should last 7 years and Cost over US$1 billion. Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries were unable to fund themselves to meet such high development costs. Both companies were acquired by other companies in 2018 and 2019respectively.
Despite the high price tag, developing asteroid mining technology could very well be an interesting endeavor due to the extremely valuable resources that asteroids have to offer. For example, Asterank, which measures the potential value of more than 6,000 asteroids currently tracked by NASA, determined that mining the 10 most profitable asteroids, that is, those that are both the most close to the Earth and the most important in value, would be produce a profit of approximately US$1.5 trillion. There is also great potential for expansion. An asteroid, 16 Psyche, was reported to hold 700 quintillion dollars worth of gold, enough for every person on earth to receive about $93 billion.
Such technology could also have a tangible impact on the environment. Specifically, asteroid mining to prevent the need for traditional ground mining methods, which release toxic chemicals such as lead and arsenic into waterways and contribute to acid mine drainage. Asteroid mining could also provide an avenue for the creation of solar power satellites, a potentially consistent source of clean energy. Most of the progress that has already been made on asteroid mining technology has focused on extract water, reflecting concerns about growing water shortages around the world.
Additionally, an important argument can be made that asteroid mining reduce the prevalence of inhumane or otherwise illegal practices surrounding human mining operations. This would have a particular impact on artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) operations, operations that are not managed by large mining companies. For example, attention has recently focused on the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This country has met the growing global demand for batteries and electric vehicles with its supplies of cobalt, of which it contains around 70% of the world’s resources. Although mining operations can be dangerous, a deplorable record of child labor and fatalities in Congolese ASM operations has highlighted the need for significant change. Asteroid mining as an alternative to traditional mining could be the kind of change the world needs to end these abuses of power.
Perhaps the most apparent impact of asteroid mining would be on the global economy. On the one hand, it could produce significant wealth for individuals, with astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson among otherssame affirming that the first trillionaire will be an asteroid mining magnate. To that end, some argue that promoting asteroid mining technology could also be key to development a future space economy, ranging from tourism to colonization. However, many experts argue that asteroid mining would quickly destroy the world’s commodity economy, currently valued to about 660 billion US dollars. They claim that this saving would quickly be overtaken by the quintillions of dollars in material from asteroid mining. Asteroid mining resources would flood the market, causing a rapid devaluation of global commodities. Such a situation was simulated by researchers at Tel Aviv University. They predicted that a “significant global struggle for resources and power” would ensue in a world with asteroid mining. They came to this conclusion after creating a simulation in which a shipment of space minerals devalued the price of gold on Earth by 50%.
Notably, the Tel Aviv researchers also predicted that in this struggle, developing countries would be significantly affected as they rely heavily on mineral exports and lack the resources to build their own asteroid mining operations. This prospect has not been widely covered in the existing literature on the economics of space mining, but could be a real possibility. Specifically, asteroid mining could allow a company to become responsible for trading a single natural resource, threatening countries that currently rely on resource exports. For example, some individual asteroids own more than US$50 billion worth of platinum. By comparison, South Africa, the largest producer platinum to about 72 percent of the world’s supply, mine only about $3.8 billion worth of platinum in 2018, or 4.3 million ounces on average the price of US$882.18 per ounce. South Africa has a lot benefited from the use of its platinum resources as well as its many other mineral resources, the industry employing over 451,000 people and accounting for 8.2% of its GDP. In a future where asteroid mining becomes the norm, South Africa’s economic performance will decline, harming the livelihoods of many South Africans.
The situation is likely to be even more serious in other countries. Unlike South Africa, which has a fairly large and diverse economy and a booming space industry, Zimbabwe, another major platinum producer, would have a much harder time if mining operations were overwhelmed. Zimbabwe would be particularly affected given that the country currently lacks the resources to develop space mining technology. With research efforts underway to determine the amount of other elements, including cobalt, on different asteroids, a wide variety of fledgling economies are at risk. For example, the possibility of obtaining cobalt from asteroids could wipe out the Democratic Republic of Congo’s cobalt mining operations. This would end up harming the entire national economy.
Although people currently working in precarious mining conditions would likely be safer, they would also be out of work. More importantly, people who lose their jobs, especially low-income workers who lack the skills needed for asteroid mining, would not be able to find employment in the asteroid mining industry. . Thus, there would be a permanent loss of these important low-skilled jobs for people in dire need of income.
There are a few potential remedies for this problem. The first would be to expand developing economies’ access to asteroid mining technologies so that others have the potential to compete in a future space-based economy. Since these operations would be heavily carried out by private companies, this could mean that developing countries would have to sponsor the presence of such companies at their borders, or to reinforce the educational programs which would allow the construction of these companies inside the country. The second option would require the diversification economies that currently rely heavily on mining technology. However, this is an already ongoing and relatively slow process that would see its shortcomings exacerbated by technological advances that only benefit rich countries. As suggested in the Tel Aviv University study, a third solution would be to develop a mechanism whereby wealthier countries that use the technology compensate for less wealthy countries. Finally, policy makers could continue their efforts to regulate production. This would ensure that, even if asteroid mining became possible in large quantities, materials would only be produced at a rate comparable to current production. It could also reduce the likelihood of a tragedy of the commons situation, in which overexploitation depletes the availability of resources. Although perhaps unlikely due to the vastness of space, the limitations of human technology make it a possibility. Most of today’s international space treaties, such as the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and the 1979 Moon Agreement, are defined by their ambiguity. While this ambiguity is what has allowed countries like the United States and Luxembourg to pass legislation allowing private companies to begin asteroid mining, little has been said about resource regulation. Resource regulation alone requires that the moon and celestial bodies, as whole objects, cannot be owned by a single country. As a result, many current debates still exist on who would be responsible for space regulation and how they would do it. While this is a necessary discussion moving forward, it is imperative that such conversations not only involve countries with significant capabilities to enter space and conduct mining asteroids, but also those that bear the brunt of its negative economic impacts. It is high time to bring all countries to the asteroid mining table.