23 February, 2016

Space mining edges closer to reality but legal minefield remains

The stuff of science fiction could soon become reality as a growing number of companies and organisations look to space for a treasure chest of untapped resources.

Minerals including iron, nickel, titanium, platinum, water and helium-3 that are found on asteroids and the moon could be mined for use on Earth or used in space for future colonies.

"It's definitely not going to happen like in the movie Armageddon - I can guarantee it's not going be done by humans, it's going to be done by the robots," said associate professor of asteroid mining Serkan Saydam from the University of New South Wales.

NASA research has found that around 1,500 asteroids are within "easy reach" of Earth, and a house-sized asteroid could contain metals worth millions of dollars.

"Asteroid mining companies are (already) set to launch their first space craft in the near future," Mr Saydam said.

"We're still discussing what sort of methods we will use to break the asteroids, is it going to be blasting?"

That reality is drawing closer and closer as the cost of space missions has dropped on the back of cheaper nano-satellite technology, while deep sea mining robotics for extraction under extreme conditions can be adapted for use in space.

Earlier this year, Luxembourg announced plans to pioneer the potentially lucrative business of mining asteroids in space for gold, platinum, and tungsten.

Meanwhile, in November, US President Barack Obama signed the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, allowing US companies property rights over space resources they retrieve.

One US commercial space company, Deep Space Industries, welcomed President Obama's move and said the harvest of space resources will be "the biggest industrial transformation in human history".
The company specialises in space mining, utilising nano-satellite technology to keep costs down.

Regulatory minefield

However, with opportunity comes a regulatory minefield, as questions are raised as to who owns what and which legal framework would apply to government agencies and for-profit companies.
"International framework of space is based on primarily United Nations treaties that were put together in a different era," said Professor Steven Freeland from the University of Western Sydney, who is assisting the Australian Government in its current review of the regulatory framework for space activities.

"They were put together during the period of the Cold War where there were very few countries engaged in space, when the vast majority of space activities were state-oriented."
Space exploration remains highly political, but it has now become open for business as more and more companies seek their fortune in asteroid mining and the potential for space tourism.

"We are literally shaping space for future generations and we need to be careful about the decisions we make around that," said Dr Alice Gormanis, a senior lecturer at Flinders University who focuses on the emerging field of space archaeology.

"Everyone is a stakeholder in outer-space, particularly if you think of something like the moon, a huge role in human cultures across all times, and across the whole of the Earth."

Source: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-02-22/space-mining-closer-to-reality-but-legal-minefield-remains/7189880


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