Mining Asteroids: Beginner’s Guide To Facts, Problems With A Mother Lode & The Legal Void In Outer Space

June 25, 2012

With Planetary Resource’s plans to mine asteroids for metals, we look at facts and science fiction of such a feat.

 

Toward the end of April, Seattle-based Planetary Resources Inc. went public with its mission: to mine asteroids. A private enterprise with some heavyweight investors, the company marks the participation of yet another private enterprise in the latest iteration of the space race—that to be run and sponsored by private, as opposed to public, money.

So, apart from what we’ve all been told by the players themselves, are there any issues that may, perhaps, require a bit more attention?

 

Do Asteroids Really Contain Those PGMs?

What are asteroids anyway? Perhaps a good way of understanding asteroids is briefly to compare and contrast them with comets. NASA has a great comet fact sheet. Some of the most salient shared and individual characteristics are the following:

 

 

The most important characteristic of asteroids, in this context, is their composition; in particular not only that they can be made of metals, but also that they can contain water. Most asteroids fall into three main categories:

  • C-type (Carbonaceous): According to NASA (back in 1996), such asteroids included more than 75 percent of those then known. Apparently with a composition like that of the sun, they lack “hydrogen, helium, and other volatiles.” In addition, they can contain water. (In 2010, two research teams discovered water on the asteroids 65 Cybele and 24 Themis, both C-type bodies.)
  • S-type (Silicaceous): These asteroids accounted for 17 percent of known asteroids. They are composed of “metallic iron mixed with iron- and magnesium-silicates” and, sometimes nickel.
  • M-type (Metallic): Included “many of the rest of” then-known asteroids. They are composed mainly of metallic iron, and nickel.

 

Although it might be useful to have alternative sources of nickel, iron and magnesium, it is the possible presence of the platinum group metals (PGMs), in particular, in asteroids that is really making them attractive to prospective space miners.

 

 

(Space Wealth’s short paper Is Profitable Asteroid Mining A Pragmatic Goal? has got some excellent tables in it setting out the putative worth of various different types of asteroid containing the PGMs.) This is quite apart from the possibility of their containing, also, the likes of rare earths and other, desirable, metals.

While as far back as in the 1970s, Brian O’Leary was writing in Science about mining the Apollo and Amor asteroids. Some 20 years later, Mark J. Sonter, then a Master of Science candidate at the University of Wollongong, in Australia, submitted for his degree a thesis titled “The Technical and Economic Feasibility of Mining the Near-Earth Asteroids.” In this, he has an interesting “matrix” of “of spectral type, inferred mineralogy, and potential products”:

 

Type

Inferred Mineralogy

Product

C, D, P

clay, organics, ice at depth

volatiles: H2O, CO2, CH4

B, G, F

clay, silicate, limestone, Nickel-Iron metal

volatiles: Nickel-Iron metal

Q, S, M

silicates, Nickel-Iron metal

metal, silicates and PGMs

 

Just over three years later, in a paper published in 2000, Brad R. Blair of the Colorado School of Mines (now president and chairman of the board of the International Space Development Authority Corporation – ISDAC), wrote that, based on the composition of certain meteorites, “[h]igh-grade platinum-group metal concentrations have been identified in an abundant class of near-Earth asteroids known as LL Chondrites” and “Metallic Asteroids,”

In the paper, “The Role of Near-Earth Asteroids in Long-Term Platinum Supply,” he examined (referencing, in particular, work by Brian O’Leary, John S. Lewis and Mark J. Sonter) “from an economic perspective … [t]he potential existence of a high-value asteroid-derived mineral product.”

Sonter, however, shortly follows his matrix above with the following: “All of our assumptions about the makeup of asteroids depend on spectroscopic and photometric information and on implied linkages with meteorites. Meteorites are the only “ground truth” available, and selection biases are large and not well known. For example, not all lumps of material entering the upper atmosphere will survive to reach the ground: volatile and structurally weak or friable objects will generally not survive to end up in museum display cases or meteoricists’ laboratories.”

It would be fascinating to know just what advances have been made over the last 15-20 years in the study of both asteroids and meteorites that makes space miners like Planetary Resources confident that the PGMs are actually there to be had.

One is certainly led to believe that when its fleet of satellites takes to the empyrean, each will be employing cutting-edge instrumentation in its survey of the asteroids out there. Perhaps such instrumentation still needs to be developed and this is why Planetary Resources says: “Initial space resource development will focus on water-rich asteroids.”

 

 

Is Mining Asteroids Legal?

So, how do you stake a claim in space? Indeed, can you stake a claim in space? And what are the legal issues involved surrounding mining asteroids?

It is, perhaps, not coincidental that earlier this year, Springer published Dr. Ricky J. Lee’s Law and Regulation of Commercial Mining of Minerals in Outer Space dealing with these issues, among others.

As the publisher’s blurb describes it: “This monograph addresses the legal and policy issues relating to the commercial exploitation of natural resources in outer space.” And, then, “… attempts to balance such interests in creating a legal and policy compromise to create a new regulatory regime.” While the work (originally Dr. Lee’s doctoral thesis) certainly seems to try to do the former, about the success of the latter, comments are still eagerly awaited.

Needless to say, this is not the simplest of fields and, indeed, Dr. Lee’s book runs more than 320 pages excluding tables, etc. Part of the problem seems, not least, to be the dearth of laws and/or treaties that address not only the concept of mining asteroids, but mining in space by individuals as opposed to by nations.

Born as it was, during a chilly period in the Cold War—1967—the Outer Space Treaty appears only to apply to nations (except insofar as these are required to ensure compliance by their citizens with the treaty) and “outer” space. Where individuals and asteroids actually fit into the picture is very much a matter of conjecture.

If the Outer Space Treaty is to be looked to for guidance when it comes, in particular, to the issue of property rights, where to look when it comes, for example, to issues not only of exploitation but also legal liability, dispute settlement, etc., is another matter.

And what part do/will the two concepts of the “Province of Mankind” and the “Common Heritage of Mankind” play in all this? Should we look at outer space as the former? Or, like our own deep seabed, as an example of the latter? As is noted in Chapter 5 of Dr. Lee’s book, any discussion just of these two will involve legislation as diverse as The Antarctic Treaty (1961); The Wellington Convention (1989); the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS – 1982); and the Moon Agreement (1979).

Essentially, no framework yet exists to encompass all the (known) issues surrounding asteroid mining. So, as they develop their businesses, those in the forefront, like Planetary Resources, Dr. Robert Richards’, Naveen Jain’s, and Dr. Barney Pell’s Moon Express as well as Sonter’s Asteroid Enterprises are all going to have to work extremely hard to ensure that, as much as they are able, they either own or direct the legal narrative going forward, which might be a challenge.

 

 

Supply And Demand

Another issue seems, also, to need further examination. It is one that has been raised in a few pieces on asteroid mining; in particular, in The Economist’s Going platinum: “But the real doubt over this sort of enterprise is not the supply, but the demand. Platinum, iridium and the rest are expensive precisely because they are rare. Make them common, by digging them out of the heart of a shattered planet, and they will become cheap.”

Maybe though, we’re all looking at these economics in the wrong context, and as John W. Miller wrote in his piece, “Exhausting the Earth’s Resources? Not So Fast” for the Wall Street Journal: “The most compelling case for asteroid mining is for a yet-undesired element that turns out to be not abundant in the earth’s crust and becomes suddenly valuable because of some future technological advance.”

Who would have thought, though, that when Eugene Houdry was granted a U.S. patent for his platinum-containing autocatalyst on April 17, 1956, now, not only would “the leading demand sector” for PGMs be catalysts for reducing emissions from both light- and heavy-duty vehicles, but “[t]oday, over 85 percent of all new vehicles sold globally each year are fitted with catalytic converters.”

If you run in parallel both the time it will take actually to extract any material from an asteroid and the unparalleled forward vision of the billionaire backers of these space projects, who is to know what may be valuable when it comes possible to exploit it?

Perhaps it really may be just plain, ordinary water.

 

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