Two congressmen recently introduced the ASTEROIDS Act, which would grant property rights to companies seeking to mine the asteroid belt. Yesterday, the House Space Subcommittee held a hearing on the bill, where expert testimony bluntly told Congress the private sector is not up to the task of mining in space.
The American Space Technology for Exploring Resource Opportunities in Deep Space (ASTEROIDS) Act — also known as H.R. 5063 — was introduced this past July by Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL) and Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA). The two congressmen, both members of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, declared in a joint statement that the bill would not only create more jobs but also safeguard America's economic security:
"We may be many years away from successfully mining an asteroid, but the research to turn this from science fiction into reality is being done today," said Rep. Derek Kilmer.
"Businesses in Washington state and elsewhere are investing in this opportunity, but in order to grow and create more jobs they need greater certainty. That's why I'm excited to introduce this bill with Representative Posey so we can help the United States access new supplies of critical rare metals while serving as a launch pad for a growing industry."
Currently, rare minerals used to manufacture a wide range of products are found in a small number of countries. This has left the United States dependent on foreign nations for these resources. The limited supply and high demand for these materials, alongside major advances in space technology and a deeper understanding of asteroids, has led a number of private sector investors to begin developing plans to identify and secure high-value minerals found on asteroids and transport them for use here on Earth.
The legislation has the support of several organizations and companies that comprise the "NewSpace community," which is dedicated to promoting innovative commercial ventures as the primary means to expand our presence beyond the Earth. That includes two U.S. companies that are actively developing plans for asteroid mining: Deep Space Industries (DSI) and Planetary Resources.
The initiative has also been tentatively endorsed by the Planetary Society as a way to build an off-world infrastructure for space exploration, by making use of resources extracted and manufactured in space — what is known as "in situ resource utilization" (ISRU). At yesterday's hearing, James F. Bell, the president of The Planetary Society and a professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University, testified that:
The issue of resources on asteroids is particularly compelling, not only from the scientific perspective noted above, but also as we begin to imagine a future where humanity is moving outward beyond our home world, exploring and settling new frontiers in our solar system. Just like many of the settlers who moved to the American West in the 19th century, settlers moving outward from Earth in the 21st century and beyond will want to try to figure out how to "live off the land" as much as possible. Based on what we know now, there's good reason to believe that asteroids could provide many of the raw natural resources that humans will need to live and work beyond Earth. Some are water-bearing (and thus, oxygen-bearing), others have significant concentrations of metals and silicates useful as building materials. Based on meteorite studies, some are even likely to contain significant amounts of precious metals. All of these attributes make asteroids potentially economically attractive targets for future resource extraction.
While the extraction of space-based resources from asteroids is certainly still many years away, The Planetary Society believes that it would be wise to start making the required investments in technology, infrastructure, and transportation systems required to study asteroids in the level of detail needed to make truly informed future decisions about their individual resource potential. As such, we support investments, through both commercial and governmental programs, in the kinds of technologies needed for the exploration and utilization of asteroids as contemplated in H.R. 5063.
The Long Road Ahead
The most detailed testimony at the hearing was also the most skeptical. Mark Sykes, the Director of the Planetary Science Institute and a co-investigator on the NASA Dawn mission to Vesta and Ceres, bluntly stated that, "The development of an NEO ISRU infrastructure is beyond the scope of private enterprise."
Sykes believes that such an endeavor might one day be feasible, but not without first overcoming several hurdles that will likely require funding on a scale that could only be provided by the government. In fact, he reminds us, we're not even sure about the precise composition of asteroids, which is crucial to planning mining operations:
We have some idea of their composition from remote spectroscopic observations and by picking up meteorites on the surface of the Earth and analyzing them. However, while spectra provide important clues to composition, they do not necessarily provide detailed information on bulk minerals comprising an asteroid. ….Likewise, meteorites represent only a small fraction of the mass of the asteroid entering the Earth's atmosphere and do not necessarily present a complete picture of its composition.
Commercial asteroid resource extraction requires an understanding of the composition and mechanical properties of the material to be processed, and an understanding of how to do this under low-gravity conditions….In fact, it is unknown the extent to which any asteroid is compositionally homogeneous ….Extraction processes will have to be developed that accommodate a range of compositions …. At some point there would have to be the demonstration of an autonomous resource recovery facility on a near-Earth asteroid. There is then the need to assess the resource that has been extracted, determine the need for subsequent processing into usable material (e.g., water may need to be purified and then converted to hydrogen and oxygen, liquefied, and stored).
All this basic science and engineering is something beyond the scope of reasonable investment by a commercial entity, because there would be no expectation of return in investment on a reasonable timescales. I expect it would take a couple of decades to get to the point when one could answer the question of whether, with some level infrastructure in place, the marginal cost of processing and returning water from an asteroid would be cheaper than bringing it up from the surface of the Earth. Given the potential long-term benefit of a positive outcome in opening up the solar system to expanded human activity, this is a logical area of governmental investment. Once the basic science is known and basic technologies supporting this effort are developed, this would be the logical time for the private sector to come in and see if it could do things more cost-effectively.
Ad Astra, Contra Legem?
And then there's the tiny detail about whether granting asteroid mining rights to U.S. companies is legal under international law.
Joanne Irene Gabrynowicz, a prominent legal expert who was formerly the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Space Law, testified that current treaties do appear to allow for the appropriation of natural resources from other planets and asteroids. However, what remains unclear is the ownership status of the resources when they are collected.
Michael Listner, an attorney who counsels governmental and private organizations on matters relating to space law and policy, raised similar concerns when I interviewed him for a previous article. Those in the commercial sector, who believe private ownership of resources extracted from space is legal, point to a British legal decision, which permitted the private sale of lunar soil that had been obtained by the Soviet Union. Listner, however, said:
My opinion is that the effect of the Soviet lunar sample precedent will be negligible when it is compared to the potentially trillions of dollars in mineral resources that could be extracted. The sale of the Soviet lunar sample was so minuscule that the international community hardly batted an eyelash….
The ASTEROID Act does score points for being crafted with international law in mind. It calls upon the U.S. government to:
Promote the right of United States commercial entities to explore and utilize resources from asteroids in outer space, in accordance with the existing international obligations of the United States, free from harmful interference, and to transfer or sell such resources; and develop the frameworks necessary to meet the international obligations of the United States.
But the "free from harmful interference" statement is problematic. The legislation further defines it as:
As between any entities over which the United States can exercise jurisdiction, any assertion of superior right to execute specific commercial asteroid resource utilization activities in outer space shall prevail if it is found to be first in time, derived upon a reasonable basis, and in accordance with all existing international obligations of the United States.
Sykes points out why this could quickly turn ugly:
Under the current language, I could today take published observations of near-Earth objects by the NASA Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer telescope, identify those with low albedo (enhancing their probability of being water sources), and lay claim to the 100 objects having the most favorable orbits for low-energy missions with good dynamical opportunities for returns of material to Earth orbit. Resource recovery may be decades in the future, but under the terms of this bill I can make an "assertion of superior right" by being "first in time, derived upon a reasonable basis" to have made that assertion and assuming it is "in accordance with all existing international obligations of the United States." I can effectively increase the future costs of those who might be compelled to pay me for access to "my" asteroids or go to a less dynamically favorable resource target.
And the Wild West's gold rush begins anew.