The Emergence of Asteroid Mining
To assess the future of space security, one must critically analyze the development of emerging technologies and the potential exploitation of space assets alongside policy implications. Moving forward into the next decade, new space actors are entering the space frontier with a growing interest in resource mining on asteroids.
Before assessing the value of an asteroid over other space assets, it’s important to know the specification of an asteroid and how they differ from other celestial bodies, such as the meteor family. Meteoroids are pieces of asteroids that have broken off, while meteors have entered the earth’s atmosphere, and meteorites have hit the surface of the earth. Asteroids, however, are much larger rocks by composition with a diameter spanning between a mile to 475 miles and most of them orbit the sun between Mars and Jupiter. Many of the asteroids in the asteroid belt are incredibly valuable in resources; as Martin Elvis notes, “scientists infer that a small asteroid 200 meters in length and rich in platinum could be worth $30 billion”. From the least common asteroids rich in valuable metals (M-type), to the more common carbonaceous chondrite asteroids rich in water (C-type), to silicate or stony asteroids (S-type), the diverse wealth of asteroid resources would bring immense value to any space actor able to harness them.
Because these minerals, particularly water, can now be mined on asteroids with developing technologies, such as China’s ambitious space-based solar power (SBSP) program, both commercial and state actors are keen to cash in on the emerging economic benefits of space power. Space security not only rests on the intention and diversity of actors at play, but also on what mining these valuable space assets could mean for life on Earth. With the 1967 Outer Space Treaty laying the only concrete and broad foundation for space policy, the bandwidth of space law and governance falls short of being adequately prepared for this growing space frontier. There is a bold future for asteroid mining and the wealth that these asteroids could bring to emerging space actors will have vast implications for space security.
Exploration and Exploitation
It is extremely important to understand potential security concerns wrapped up in exploiting off-Earth resources. Since the technology for asteroid mining now exists, a normative argument arises surrounding the little equity and unequal access to these extraterrestrial commons and resources. Even if the companies mining these resources are taxed, liability and safety are difficult to monitor and these resources could unintentionally become destroyed in the process. Questions of ‘who’ belongs there and ‘where’ is the justice beg to be answered.
Space ethics researcher Tony Milligan argues for the protection of unique and distinctive asteroids in a similar capacity that the Grand Canyon or Uluru are protected; with regards to the negative effects of expansionism, he states how difficult it is “to get people to think in the long term when there were such short term advantages to be had”. Researcher Robert Sparrow joins this line of thought in noting how “we have done so badly looking after our home that the desire to mine asteroids can’t help but appear profoundly arrogant”. Solar System ethics, therefore, exist to limit draconian exploitation of asteroids. Martin Elvis and Tony Milligan’s article, “How much of the Solar System should we leave as Wilderness?”, addresses this dilemma with a “one-eighth principle” that limits the use of exploitable materials in the solar system to one-eighth of what is available. Their argument asserts that “one-eighth of the iron in the asteroid belt is more than a million times greater than all of the Earth’s currently estimated iron ore reserves, and it may well suffice for centuries”. As humans are bad at calculating exponential growth and are inherently short-term opportunists, this last accessible space frontier needs restrictions to be put in place far before super-exploitation hits the fan. Vested and competing interests in space could mimic resource exploitation, such as that of the Industrial Revolutions, and could ultimately lead to those similar effects of exhaustion, resource depletion, or an economic revolution.
Comparisons can also be made between water mined asteroids and petroleum politics as both “gas stations” are economically advantageous as limited pools of fuel supply. Ethical use of mined resources would, therefore, rest in the capacity for sustainable use. Since all “material used as propellant to move rockets around the solar system is lost”, an argument could be made that the use of space resources would be most ethically used to create longer-term sustainable human habitats. This wraps up the importance in solar system ethics of not only what materials are mined, but also how they are mined and how the resources are intended to be used. The diverse uses for these resources concern all of Earth, as rich minerals have the capacity to overhaul the current economy and to inequitably advance the power of certain commercial enterprises and states. Bringing trillions of dollars worth of mined minerals back to Earth would also devalue the mineral product itself.
Some concerns have also garnered attention regarding the potential for mining uranium on asteroids and the resulting nuclear weapons capabilities. Although this is a valid concern, considering the substantial appearance of uranium at the origin of the solar system, there hasn’t been a uranium-rich asteroid found in the asteroid belt worth mining yet. As of now, the focus on mineral mining is not geared towards uranium but rather on other metallic minerals that are easier to directly monetize.
Extraction of resources on asteroids raises an ethical debate about the possibility for exploration to border exploitation, thus posing a major risk for the stability of space security and the space economy.
Materials to Mine: Metals and Water
Mineral resources on asteroids are abundant and could bring extreme wealth to whoever first reaches them. As a 2017 NASA survey estimated, there are at least 18,000 asteroids close to Earth. The resources on these asteroids can be broken down into two categories: achondrites rich in platinum group metals, and chondrites rich in water. There is wealth in platinum, gold, and titanium, as these minerals have gravitated deep into Earth’s core and are incredibly difficult to access.
As the solar system was forming, the turbulence of collisions sparked the creation of achondrite asteroids, which are treasure chests for space miners. Gold and titanium sell for anything between $30,000-50,000 per kilogram. Therefore, there is a clear potential for billions, or even trillions, of dollars to be mined from asteroid metals. Asteroid 2011 UW158, which sailed approximately 1.5 million miles away from Earth in July 2015, was valued at having a worth of $5 trillion in platinum. Metal minerals on asteroids can be mined for either wealth and investment or for the ability to transform metals, such as nickel and iron, into a 3-D printed part to use in space. As demonstrated by the space 3-D printer on the ISS, an ability to robotically assemble useful systems in orbit means both a reduction in construction costs as well as enhanced resilience. The silicon and aluminum found on asteroids are ideal for 3-D printing solar panels; this is something China is looking into harnessing: currently, China is building a space-based solar power system (SBSP) designed to trap the sun’s rays, condense it, and deliver the power wirelessly either back to Earth or to other future space civilizations like those planned for the Moon and Mars.
Despite the monetary value sought after in M-type asteroids, C-type asteroids, rich in water, are perhaps the most valuable asteroids for mining purposes. Water is vital for creating propulsion, as rocket fuel, which is necessary for space crafts. Approximately 90% of a rocket payload is fuel; without the burden of carrying enough fuel for both rocket launch and return, other areas of a spacecraft could be elaborated on further.
Flight engineer and NASA astronaut Don Pettit notes: “When making a rocket that is near 90% propellant (which means only 10% rocket), small gains through engineering are literally worth more than their equivalent weight in gold.” The water locked in asteroid clay deposits can either be used as propellant refuel directly or by the oxygen and hydrogen that can be created from it. This would turn asteroids into a sort of ‘gas station’ that would allow for longer voyages and deeper space travel. Water could also be used to further permanent space settlements on celestial bodies such as the Moon or Mars. Mining water on asteroids would, in fact, allow for both astronaut hydration and for the development of sustainable agriculture on other planets and celestial bodies.
Diverse and rich resources on asteroids would bring immense wealth to any space power able to mine their water or metallic resources.
Applying Space Law
Because outer space is the new frontier, there are currently very few space policies and laws intact to dictate the limitations and bounds of both state and commercial involvement in cosmic affairs. The Outer Space Treaty (1967), the foundation of space policy, was created in the heat of the Space Race with the intent of easing malicious activity in space for the safety of life on Earth. The U.S feared a Soviet space advantage, with Yuri Gargarin’s successful 1961 voyage and the success of the 1957 Sputnik-1 satellite, and reciprocal concerns from the USSR motivated the creation of this treaty. It provided a common framework in the governance of space power. By banning all “nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in orbit or on celestial bodies or station them in outer space in any other manner”, Cold War tensions in space were lessened for both states. There are, however, profound weaknesses in this treaty that have aged poorly over time. Critics of this treaty note that, while Article II states that “outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation by any other means”, the language does not specify national or commercial ownership. The treaty lacks a legal consensus on who exactly is prohibited, corporations and commercial enterprises fall into the void of this treaty.
Where commercial actors fit into space policy is something that hasn’t received proper governmental attention in the development of early space power. In 2015, the Obama administration intended to fill some of these gaps with the signage of the “U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act” (CSLCA) into law. This act made legal the owning and selling of resources extracted from asteroids and other celestial bodies by American companies and citizens; it was ultimately targeted at facilitating a “pro-growth environment for developing commercial space industry”. Although this first-come, first-served favour applied to mining rights and resource ownership seems straight forward, it has the potential to become legally complicated. If claim or ownership is applied for by a US private company, and then another country rushes in to base itself on the asteroid first, the term first come gets clouded by agency and application. This begs the question, can asteroids be shared property with shared rights? What happens when there is competition for mining the same asteroid? While this 2015 treaty brings clarity to ownership, a blurring of ownership and rights to claim asteroids complicates the legality of resource distribution. Another U.S space law entered the stage when President Trump signed the Space Directive-1 (SD-1) on December 11, 2017, which determined “Americans should have the right to engage in commercial exploration, recovery, and use of resources in outer space, consistent with applicable law”; in other words, the US does not view outer space and its resources as a global commons. Asserting additional commercial governance for Americans in space, Trump signed another executive order, “Encouraging International Support for the Recovery and Use of Space Resources,” on April 6, 2020. This order stressed a clear path to off-Earth mining. As Scott Pace, executive secretary of the U.S. National Space Council, explains: “This executive order establishes U.S. policy toward the recovery and use of space resources, such as water and certain minerals, in order to encourage the commercial development of space.” As this giant leap for commercial space exploitation opens outer space up for business, there are vocal critics to these new U.S. implemented space policies. Sergey Saveliev, the Deputy Director-General of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, condemned Trump’s April 2020 executive order with the statement:
“Attempts to expropriate outer space and aggressive plans to actually seize territories of other planets hardly set the countries (on course for) fruitful cooperation. There have already been examples in history when one country decided to start seizing territories in its interest- everyone remembers what came of it.”
Ultimately, the vast opportunities in space mean humanist pretenses can often be misinterpreted or have exploitive intent in the global domain and international sphere. At the heart of this, commercial actors, such as SpaceX, are expanding their wealth as space colonizers, benefitting from limited oversight in the outer space arena.
The direction of space policy and law, particularly in relation to resources on celestial bodies, is one headed towards increased commercial engagement and governmental encouragement. What this means internationally is that, with added U.S. commercial support, other countries will likely follow with more engagement in the legalities of space operations both nationally and for other non-U.S. commercial actors.
Mine or Yours?
From state to commercial interest, there are many actors seeking to harness the benefits and space power that come from asteroid mining. In 2014, a Japanese spacecraft, the Hayabusa-2, left from Tanegashima and touched down on the 900m-wide asteroid 162173 Ryugu located approximately 290 million kilometers from Earth. This asteroid sample-return mission led by the Japanese space agency, JAXA, lasted for a year and a half before it departed the asteroid in November 2019.  Ryugu is a C-type asteroid, meaning the carbonaceous properties in the minerals could not only demonstrate the ability to materialize a rock fuel ‘gas station’ dream, but could also provide additional information on the origin of the universe and of the organic Earth compounds that led to the creation of life. China has taken lead as a strong actor seeking to develop sustainable life on the Moon, as well as deep space travel propelled by condensed solar energy from its planned 2050 SBSP station. China’s 2016 white paper on space activities identified asteroid exploration as a fundamental space goal alongside its ultimate aim of landing on and researching samples of platinum and titanium on asteroid 1996 FG3. There is also academic interest in China by students at Tsinghua University, who are seeking to nudge asteroids into Earth’s orbit for a better chance of safely extracting and retrieving Near Earth Orbit (NEO) resources. China isn’t the only country considering this nudge. The United States had developed an Asteroid Retrieval program (ARM) with an asteroid redirection vision. Ultimately canceled by Trump’s 2018 budget, the termination of ARM leaves U.S. asteroid mining efforts in the firm hands of the private space sector.
Private companies like Planetary Resources (acquired by blockchain company ConsenSys in 2018), Deep Space Industries, and SpaceX are avidly focused on asteroid mining. Planetary Resources led the asteroid mining movement as the first company to develop a solar system resource utilization program using Arkyd devices (A3, A3R, and A6) to probe asteroids with water and mineral sensing technology. Unfortunately, in 2018, Planetary Resources was forced to “pause on its ambitions for mining asteroids and developing the resources of space because it’s not a topic that is fundable yet”, according to president and CEO Chris Lewicki. Building off the concepts initiated by Planetary Resources, TransAstra began the development of a NIAC Phase 3 program in June 2019, also known as the Mini Bee™ asteroid mining orbital demonstrator. This Mini Bee™ will “chase down and capture a synthetic asteroid and demonstrate asteroid mining and water extraction along with high thrust water-based propulsion”; this optical mining is illustrated in Figure I. Using concentrated sunlight as a thermal shock to blast the surface of the asteroid, volatile chemicals, like water and hydrogen, are driven out of the asteroid without touching the surface of the asteroid. Deep Space Industries (DSI) aims to also be a leader in the profitable space economy. The chief lawyer of DSI, Sagi Kfir, explained the mission as first sending satellite probes to measure the quantity and quality of NEO minerals and water and then using this information to send vessels for mining. Companies like DSI and Planetary Resources lean on the financial backing of passionate investors. Because profit takes a while to materialize, asteroid mining companies often brand themselves as technology companies to attract more Silicon Valley interest, as demonstrated by the acquisition of Planetary Resources into ConsenSys. SpaceX operates differently due to the financial backing of Elon Musk. SpaceX will launch a $117 million NASA mission in July 2022 to explore the giant iron and nickel-based asteroid Psyche 16. Despite the fact that there will be no mining of this asteroid, due to the financial turmoil that Psyche 16’s $10,000 quadrillion iron profit would bring, the scientific value of this mission would rest on getting a glimpse into the history of the early solar system and formation of Earth. Various projects have begun to develop in the asteroid mining industry and, as they continue to evolve, both state and commercial actors will play key roles in the emergence of an asteroid economy.
There are global security concerns regarding asteroid mining, but to a large extent, these concerns rest on the lack of adequate governance, dialogue, or policy. Concerns about the ethics of exploitation and debates about the use of resources are necessary and important parts of the discussion when entering the new frontier and expanding human interest in non-Earth based assets. Who has access to, who owns these resources, and especially who decides how they will be used, triggers an important space security conversation that both private and government actors will need to have alongside the developments made in the emerging asteroid mining frontier. How the bold future of asteroid mining can be both ethically and equitably navigated by the various emerging space actors, is wrapped up into the necessity for tighter regulations on new technologies that have a high impact on space security.
“Asteroid Mining Is The Key To Our Future Expansion Into Space.” Planetary Resources, 30 November 2017. https://www.planetaryresources.com/2017/11/asteroid-mining-is-the-key-to-our-future-expansion-into-space/
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Elvis, Martin and Tony Milligan. “How much of the Solar System should we leave as Wilderness?” Acta Astronautica, 2018.
Fichtlscherer, Christopher. “Do we need highly enriched uranium in space (again)?” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 12 September 2019. https://thebulletin.org/2019/09/do-we-need-highly-enriched-uranium-in-space-again/
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“The Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and other Celestial Bodies”, 27 January 1967.
United States, Executive Office of the President [Donald Trump]. Executive Order on Encouraging International Support for the Recovery and Use of Space Resources. 6 April 2020. https://www.whitehouse.gov/presidential-actions/executive-order-encouraging-international-support-recovery-use-space-resources/
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Wall, Mike. “US is in a New Space Race with China and Russia, VP Pence Says.” Space.com News, 27 March 2019. https://www.space.com/new-space-race-moon-mike-pence-says.html
 Martin Elvis, “Let’s Mine Asteroids—for Science and Profit,” Nature, 31 May 2012.
 Elizabeth Howell, “’Trillion-Dollar Asteroid’ Zooms by Earth as Scientists Watch,” Space.com News, July 28, 2015.
 Namrata Goswami, “China in Space: Ambitions and Possible Conflict,” (Strategic Studies Quarterly 12, no.1, Spring 2018), 74.
 Zoe Corbyn, “The asteroid rush sending 21st century prospectors into space,” The Guardian, 9 June 2018.
 Martin Elvis and Tony Milligan, “How much of the Solar System should we leave as Wilderness?”, 1.
 Ibid, 14.
 Christopher Fichtlscherer, “Do we need highly enriched uranium in space (again)?” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 12 September 2019.
 James Moltz, “The Changing Dynamics of Twenty-First-Century Space Power”, Journal of Strategic Security 12 no.1, 29.
 Namrata Goswami, “China in Space: Ambitions and Possible Conflict,” 74.
 Ibid, 75.
 James Moltz, “The Changing Dynamics of Twenty-First-Century Space Power”, 29.
 Namrata Goswami, “China in Space: Ambitions and Possible Conflict,” 82.
 Don Pettit, “The Tyranny of the Rocket Equation,” (NASA International Space Station, 1 May 2012).
 Zoe Corbyn, “The asteroid rush sending 21st century prospectors into space,” The Guardian, 9 June 2018.
 “The Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and other Celestial Bodies”, 27 January 1967.
 Ibid, Article II.
 Zoe Corbyn, “The asteroid rush sending 21st century prospectors into space.”
 Namrata Goswami, “China in Space: Ambitions and Possible Conflict,” 74.
 United States, Executive Office of the President [Donald Trump],Executive Order on Encouraging International Support for the Recovery and Use of Space Resources, 6 April 2020.
 Mike Wall, “Trump signs executive order to support moon mining, tap asteroid resources,” Space.com, 6 April 2020.
 Harry Pettit, “Russia accuses Trump of ‘trying to seize territories on other planets’ with new space-mining bid,” The Sun, 9 April 2020.
 James Clay Moltz, “The Changing Dynamics of Twenty-First-Century Space Power,” 23.
 Namrata Goswami, “China in Space: Ambitions and Possible Conflict,” 85.
 “Asteroid Mining Is The Key To Our Future Expansion Into Space.” Planetary Resources, 30 November 2017.
 Alan Boyle, “One year after Planetary Resources faded into history, space mining retains its appeal,” GeekWire Space & Science, 4 November 2019.
 “NASA Invests in Tech Concepts Aimed at Exploring Lunar Craters, Mining Asteroids”, NASA Media Advisory, 11 June 2019.
 Leonard David, “Asteroid Mining Plan Would Bake Water Out Of Bagged-Up Space Rocks,” Space.com, 18 September 2015.
 Matthew Schaer, “The Miners Guide to the Galaxy,” Foreign Policy No. 218 (MAY/JUNE 2016), 46.
 Ryan Morrison and James Pero, “Jackpot rock: Elon Musk’s SpaceX will launch a NASA mission to an asteroid with enough precious metal to make everyone on Earth a billionaire,” Daily Mail Online, 4 March 2020.
About the author:
Julia Balm is a dual American Canadian who has studied and performed academic research in New York, Toronto, Utrecht, and London. Her research interests focus on nuclear weapons modernizations, space security, proliferative threats, and the politics of orbital debris. After graduating with an honours B.A. from the University of Toronto with a History major, Art History minor, and Creative Expression minor, she is currently pursuing an M.A. at King’s College London in Non-Proliferation and International Security. Her M.A. dissertation focuses on the role ‘intent’ plays in the assessment of space weaponization and how a nuclear intent framework would benefit space policymakers moving forward. War studies, the defense and security sector, and the discussion surrounding weapons of mass destruction continue to statistically lean on male-dominated representation and she advocates for a more equitable dialogue of voices in order to enhance the diversity, standards, and merits of international security and the nuclear field.