Space Mining: Just Around the Corner?

A Mars mission carrying 100 metric tons of cargo in 2022, along with manned missions to 2024 are immediate milestones of Elon Musk’s SpaceX plan, which aims to build a self-sufficient city of Mars by 2050. Just a few decades ago it seemed like a fantasy, but today it seems that this time frame may actually be better. Space missions are set to undergo revolutionary changes and Elon Musk’s vision and timeline are indicative of this. Space is increasingly seen as a treasure trove of precious minerals and is also the place for future human habitation beyond Earth. Investors in the global private space industry believe that space mining has the potential to shape and define the 21st century. NASA estimates that the ‘asteroid belt’ contains minerals worth quintillion dollars. American astrophysicist Neil Digrese Tyson believes “the first trillions will be those that hit asteroids”.

The “main asteroid belt” lies between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, approximately 450 to 650 million kilometers from Earth, with million asteroids. For decades, in addition to the Moon and Mars, governments and private agencies have conducted extensive research and study of asteroids for their creation, valuing their mining potential and their mining value — Asteriod ‘Benue’ for $ 670 million and Asteroids’ in 2011 has been done. UW158 ‘at $ 5.7 trillion. Transportation of mining resources for use, however, poses major obstacles. A BBC BBC report by Sarah Cradus reported that shipping a ton of water costs around $ 50 million. According to Chris Levick, president of Planetary Resources, an asteroid mining company, it takes more energy to run the first 300 kilometers from Earth than the next 300 million kilometers. Likewise, bringing more than a few kilograms of samples from space to Earth would make the logistics even more complicated. So to start, global space industry investors are focusing on keeping space resources mined in space for ‘in situ resource utilization’. The availability of water on the Moon, Mars, and asteroids offer very attractive possibilities; In addition to being important for supporting life and growing food, it also opens up the possibility of using its components, hydrogen and oxygen, to make rocket fuel. Today, using iron or nickel, cobalt, gold, platinum, and iridium, etc., with the help of 3D printers, there is a possibility to build equipment and even habitat on the Moon or Mars, which is the Moon, Mars and Available on asteroids. Researchers are working on using the regolith, a particle of rock found on the lunar surface to make a moon brick using a 3D printer. These bricks would form the basic building materials for the first Moon station and even the first Moon Hotel. Space industry players believe that a $ 4 billion investment in water mining in space can generate annual revenues of about $ 2.4 billion. Similarly, there is a new community of customers who are already looking to buy propellants in space. The American space launch provider, United Launch Alliance (ULA), a Lockheed Martin and Boeing joint venture that provides launch rockets, has made it known that ULA will pay about $ 3000 kg for propellants in low Earth orbit. is ready.

The field of space mining technology is developing rapidly with private players in the lead. Optical mining using concentrated sunlight, robotics, automated mining applications, advanced drilling machines, etc. are some examples. The participation of private players has reduced the burden of investment and increased the breadth and pace of innovation. It is believed that the launch of the first asteroid mining vehicle as well as the installation of the first fuel stations on the Moon and in low Earth orbit could become a reality within a decade.

The Japanese mission ‘Hayabusa’ was the first in 2010 to bring samples to Earth from an asteroid. ‘Hayabusa – 2’ made its meeting with the near Earth asteroid ‘162173 RYUGU’ in June 2018, leaving the asteroid after collecting samples in November 2019. Will return to Earth on December 6, 2020. The NASA mission OSIRIS-REx, similarly costing $ 1 billion, launched in 2016, is due to return to Earth on September 24, 2023, with samples from the asteroid ‘101955 Benue’. The latest US space mission, launched on July 30, 2020, will land on Mars on February 18, 2021. It will use a helicopter on Mars, the first use of a helicopter outside of Earth. In addition to collecting samples from Mars and searching for signs of habitable conditions on Mars, it will also test the possibility of manufacturing molecular oxygen from carbon dioxide-enriched Mars environments.

Beyond technical competence, however, there are complex legal issues. The commercial exploitation of space through mineral mining, tourism, real estate, etc. while creating fuel and water in space and its ‘in situ resource use’ can prove highly controversial in the context of the international legal framework for space. The current legal framework was adopted when space activities were entirely within the domain of national governments and limited to research alone. But with the nature of space activities moving from purely research activities to commercial applications to military applications and with the entry of a new community of private players and consumers into space, the old outer space treaty has been widely considered inadequate ; The ambiguity of the treaty does not cater to ‘new types of uses’ or ‘new users’ of space. Louis de Goyon Mattignon stated in a thesis on the subject that “some states have already taken the absence of express prohibition as an indication that the use of space resources is permissible, and both the USA and Luxembourg have recently adopted national legislature. Is expressly permitted “. However, it has reacted unilaterally to the international community, condemning the initiative and recommending a collective approach along the lines of laws for high seas and deep sea level. Whether or not a widely accepted new space treaty comes through, space mining is a reality and early entrants are likely to maintain monopolies and huge economic benefits for a very long time.

Where does India stand? From a modest start to launching small rockets carrying 30 to 70 kg for a current payload capacity of 4000 kg, ISRO has come a long way and has been involved in building rockets and satellites as well as remote sensing and communication applications and Global leaders are involved in the launch. . The Indian Mars Orbiter, launched in November 2013, entered Mars orbit on September 24, 2014, making ISRO the only fourth agency to reach Mars orbit. In 2017 ISRO set a world record by launching 104 satellites in a single rocket. India successfully tested satellite capacity in March 2019. In July 2019, the ambitious ‘Chandrayaan-2’ came close to a resounding success. Despite India’s well-recognized space capabilities, no known effort has been made beyond exploration in areas such as research, remote sensing and communication, such as space tourism, space mining, construction of human habitation, etc. However, recently There have been very encouraging developments in the direction of realizing the commercial potential of ISRO’s capabilities and allowing private players in the Indian space industry. Regarding the establishment of ‘NewSpace India Limited’ (NSIL) as the commercial arm of ISRO in March 2019, ISRO’s recent vision statement to make India a ‘Global Space Hub’ in five years and the establishment of ‘IN’ in June 2020 Declaration of the Government in SPACe ‘(Indian Space Promotion and Authority Center), as an autonomous agency under the Department of Space to create a separate vertical and commercial manufacture of rockets and satellites for the Indian private sector and well for the Indian space industry Launch leads the way in providing services. State-of-the-art technology, huge capital investment, high risk and long-term leadership are rooted in space. As against ISRO’s annual budget of $ 1.2 billion, NASA has a budget of $ 21 billion, while their Chinese and Russian counterparts have budgets of $ 8.4 billion and $ 3 billion. Despite its huge budget, NASA collaborated with other international agencies to reduce budget burdens and achieve collaborative technological benefits. The International Space Station (ISS) is a great example jointly operated by the US, Russia, Japan, Europe and Canada. Private players such as SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Gallic have also become major space industry players.

The global space economy today is worth about $ 360 billion and is projected to grow to trillions by 2040. Companies in the US, Russia, China, Japan, Australia, the Euro Space Agency (ESA) and even a small country like Luxembourg which has 10 registered space miners, are already in the running. In contrast, today, India accounts for 3% of the global space industry. The amazing pace of new development in space technology and its huge budgetary requirements are also preparing developed countries to cooperate with others. These factors have been compounded by the apparent legal wrangling and intense struggle for a piece of the advancing ‘space pie’, certain to leave space explorers like ISRO who work alone, far behind. Therefore, cooperation with other major space players, without any delay, is clearly the only way for India to move forward. India’s current space progress and its potential for its fair and just contribution of financial support will make it a welcome partner in any space alliance.


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