On October 13, 2023, NASA launched the Falcon Heavy, “the second-most powerful rocket currently in operation,” which is now en route to the Psyche asteroid located in the asteroid belt that separates Mars and Jupiter. This is a research mission first and foremost: Falcon Heavy will study Psyche, gaining insights into geology and the formation of planets while also surveying potential mineable resources.
The U.S. is understandably invested in making sure this mission is a success – the journey will be long, require a lot of manpower, and cost a staggering $1.2B USD to get off the ground.
So, what issues does this raise? Many. We’ll look at just one today, but keep in mind all the spheres of the law this touches:
- The Global Space Law Center (GSLC) has an ongoing interest in the concept of free and open international “information sharing,” a topic ever-present in competitive space use and research. (Keep an eye out for the GSLC’s forthcoming Information Sharing resource page!)
- This is a NASA-launched mission using a private SpaceX vessel – where do we stand with private versus public space projects?
- Who owns space? The Outer Space Treaty blocks space ownership, but currently, though regulations are sparse, the common wisdom is while a party can’t claim property in space, it may be able to lay claim to extracted resources (for more on this, see Mark J. Sundahl and Chelsea Davis’s 2017 article).
But for now, we’re talking about the potential for disparity: countries that are capable of researching and mineral extraction will profit. But what about the countries that lack the capacity to get there? If states and private parties return to earth with world-economy disrupting levels of resources to flood the market, how can less funded space programs (and their states) stay competitive? Does international law protect them?
Falcon Heavy will be studying the geology of Psyche – but it has another purpose: studying asteroids helps us identify minerals to mine for profit – and we’ll need water. Right now, Earth doesn’t need water. But space will. If we plan to expand our footprint into space in manned missions for any extended period, we’ll need the essentials. Dante Lauretta, of the University of Arizona and attached to the NASA OSIRIS-Rex asteroid mission, noted “[w]ith launch costs currently thousands of dollars per pound, you want to use water already available in space to reduce mission costs.” Water can also be broken down to create rocket fuel, another essential resource if we’re going to go anywhere for very long. But the potential profits certainly justify the costs. The Psyche asteroid possibly contains around $700 quintillion (that’s with a “Q”) USD worth of gold (not that we would be capable of getting it all home to sell), making the $1.2B cost of the research mission seemingly worth it.
How it Works
So that’s the why – what’s the how? At this stage, missions will transmit data on asteroid composition and mapping to help us understand what exactly is at stake and how to use it – but they’ll also bring back samples for study.
This won’t always be the case. As humans move toward actual mining, the process will become more complicated. For one – asteroids have a different composition than mineral deposits on earth. They’re not concentrated in veins like on Earth. This makes space mining a much more involved process. For another – can the haul even be brought back to earth? Many think yes – with a caveat. Companies like the mining startup Astroforge intend to bring minerals back to earth to help with the transition to more sustainable energy and replenish scarce resources on Earth. The only problem? They haven’t figured out how yet. Astroforge plans to send out a first wave research vessel to conduct geographic surveys that will eventually help them make a game-plan for the actual mining. Later they will figure out how to haul it all home, get it through the atmosphere, and make it actually accessible. Exciting – but not necessarily moving the needle forward on solving the problem for what to do with what we mine.
It might not be cost-feasible to bring everything back here – especially the things we aren’t trying to replenish on earth like fossil-fuel alternatives.
What Impact Will Successful Missions Have on the Rest of Us?
To stay competitive in the “geopolitical competition,” the U.S. is making broad strides with the lunar development Artemis program, as well as launching a regulatory scheme to secure private and state property interest in mined resources. Others are following suit. This sort of security will better protect the investment – if you can afford to launch at all.
The benefit of extraction in space? Lower gravity means lower energy needed to extract and transport. But what do you do when you get it back to Earth? And what do you do when that’s not feasible? The plan at this point – pending a whole lot of technological, legislative, and funding advancements – will be to utilize resources in space. Water and rocket fuel will be processed in orbit, or eventually even closer to where they’re mined or near (stay with me, here), space bases, used to support long-term missions and space habitation, and kept largely away from home. That helps the problem of flooding the market with a near-unfathomable amount of profits that would wreak havoc on the global economy. (“The space sector. . . could grow to as much as $1T by 2040,” Milken Review.)
Still, countries that can afford to explore, mine, and process resources in space have two advantages: (1) the ability to support their own missions; (2) the ability to sell the resources they develop to countries that can’t afford to.
Some see this as an opportunity to raise all ships as the margins for commercial profit increase. Groups like the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS) and The Hague International Space Resources Governance Working Group are working on better processes for increasing communication and cooperation between nations. “Rather than a tool of increased sovereign isolation, space resources represent an unparalleled opportunity for international cooperation and global development,” claims The National Interest. “New policies and international leadership of cooperative competitors is preferable to an international dispute over a mining rush.”
The Long Tradition of “Equality” in Space Use
Space use has always been predicated on equality – ever since the 1967 Outer Space Treaty became the first conceptually comprehensive international agreement. Article I starts out declaring that space shall be free for use and exploration “on a basis of equality.” The conversation of economic disparity created by countries that can afford to compete versus those that lack the capacity is broad and ongoing. Even if resources aren’t brought back to earth to be sold on the market, resources developed in space can just as easily be privately sold for use – giving wealthier countries an edge that could hobble newer space-faring countries and competitors starting at a lower operating bar.
As competition increases and demand for water and rocket fuel expand, the question will only grow more complex. Given the long history of cooperative space use (at least theoretically) and the influx of mining regulations countries are using to better position themselves for profit and gaining that legitimate edge, State Parties to the Outer Space Treaty (and anyone else planning on heading out, really) will need to factor in what their successful competition might do to the rest of the planet, and if that potential profit is a bell they’ll really want to ring to challenge equality.
By Abby Jones
Mike Wall, Relive SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy Launch of Psyche Asteroid Mission with These Amazing Photos, Space.Com (Oct. 13, 2023), https://www.space.com/spacex-falcon-heavy-psyche-asteroid-mission-launch-photos.
Michael Sheetz, SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy Launches $1B Asteroid Mission for NASA, CNBC (Oct. 13, 2023), https://www.cnbc.com/2023/10/13/watch-spacex-falcon-heavy-launch-nasa-psyche-asteroid-mission.html.
Mark J. Sundahl and Chelsey Davis, The Hague Working Group on Space Resources: Creating the Legal Building Blocks for a New Industry, Law Faculty Articles and Essays (2017), https://engagedscholarship.csuohio.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2055&context=fac_articles.
William Steigerwald, New NASA Mission to Help Us Learn How to Mine Asteroids, NASA (Aug. 8, 2013), https://www.nasa.gov/missions/new-nasa-mission-to-help-us-learn-how-to-mine-asteroids/.
Shriya Yarlagadda, Economics of the Stars: The Future of Asteroid Mining and the Global Economy, Harvard Int’l Review (Apr. 8, 2022), https://hir.harvard.edu/economics-of-the-stars/.
Spencer Kelly, Asteroid Mining: Helpful to Meet Earth’s Natural Resource Demands, BBC (May 14, 2022), https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-61421787/.
Alex Knapp, This Asteroid Mining Startup Is Ready to Launch the First-Ever Commercial Deep Space Mission, Forbes (Oct. 18, 2023), https://www.forbes.com/sites/alexknapp/2023/10/18/this-asteroid-mining-startup-is-ready-to-launch-the-first-ever-commercial-deep-space-mission/?sh=149b6228674a.
Matthew Norma, Asteroid Mining Could be the Future of Sustainable Growth, New Study Claims, Greek Reporter (Oct. 22, 2023), https://greekreporter.com/2023/10/22/asteroid-mining-sustainable-growth/.
Alex Gilbert, Mining in Space is Coming, Milken Review (Apr. 26, 2021), https://www.milkenreview.org/articles/mining-in-space-is-coming.
Alex Gilbert & Morgan Bazilian, The Geostrategic Importance of Outer Space Resources, The National Interest (May 15, 2020), https://nationalinterest.org/feature/geostrategic-importance-outer-space-resources-154746.
Outer Space Treaty, United Nations, 1967.
The CSU Global Space Law Center
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