Mining in Space – The Next Frontier?

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Mining in Space – The Next Frontier?

Off-Earth mining is no longer science fiction. Pacific Rim countries lead the way.

Given the rising global demand for rare-earth elements (REE) and the necessity to synthesize exotic materials for numerous high-tech applications, extra-terrestrial mining is likely to become the next race in space.

REE are used in state-of-the-art electronics, nuclear technologies, lasers, super-magnets and green-energy technology. China, the world’s largest producer of REE, restricted its abundant supplies globally in 2009, citing the need to protect the environment. In fact, it was the mismanagement of reserves and increasing domestic high-tech production that compelled Beijing to cut REE exports from its Bayan Obo mining district.

In response to Beijing’s move, REE consumers and electronic manufacturers like Japan, the U.S and South Korea accelerated terrestrial exploration of reserves to maintain their industrial supplies.

In 2011, Japan succeeded in discovering REE in ocean-bed deposits in its Pacific Exclusive Economic Zone. Apart from exploration, the Japanese trading firm Sumitomo Corporation created a joint venture – Summit Atom Rare Earth Company – with Kazakhstan’s state-run nuclear agency KazAtomProm, to extract REEs from the abundant uranium tailings in Kazakhstan. In 2012, the U.S-based Molycorp Inc. resumed operations in the long-closed Mountain Pass Rare Earth Mine in California to meet domestic demand in the civilian and defence sectors. South Korea has entered into an agreement on REE prospecting with Kyrgyzstan – probably one of the largest such projects in this unexploited mineral-rich nation.

Countries like India, Canada, Tanzania, Australia, Brazil and Vietnam have started prospecting and mining REE within their own jurisdictions; Australia has the largest mine outside China, at Mount Weld.

China, in spite of its large, indigenous REE reserves, is in search of foreign sources for stockpiling. Beijing’s vast experience in REE trade and mining has attracted Greenland. Negotiations are underway, but no formal agreement has been substantiated. Greenland wants to attract foreign investments for exploring its REE and other mineral resources, as part of a move toward greater autonomy from the Kingdom of Denmark. But most of the REE resources in Greenland are associated with uranium deposits, and the Kingdom of Denmark remains the authority on these nuclear resources. It will be difficult for China to penetrate the NATO security cloud and exploit Greenland’s REE resources.

Given the competition for REEs, the mining of abundant REE reserves on the Moon and on Near Earth Asteroids (NEA) is awaiting the development of infrastructure and logistics. Space stations are a central component of such an enterprise, and extra-terrestrial mining on the Moon and NEAs is likely to be realized by the year 2050.

The international Moon Treaty, first put forward by the U.S. government in 1979, intended to transfer jurisdiction of the Moon and other celestial bodies to all the nations of the world. But the major space-faring nations have not yet ratified the treaty. This leaves celestial bodies open for exploration and the growing possibility of prospecting and utilizing space-based mineral and fuel reserves.

In preparation, this year, after a gap of nearly three decades, multiple space stations are orbiting simultaneously in the Low Earth Orbit (LEO). These include the International Space Station (ISS) and Tiangong 1. Six crew members are on the ISS, launched by the Russian Soyuz TMA missions, and three are on the Chinese Shenzhou 10 mission to Tiangong 1.

The ISS – the largest artificial object in orbit – is making prodigious advancements in manned, long-duration presence in the LEO; this is being accomplished with regular replenishment and repair expeditions from Earth. The ISS conducts scientific experiments related to material science, human physiology, meteorology, and astronomy.

Greater international cooperation as well as competition in research for the potential use of extra-terrestrial resources will govern the future of humans in space. China will establish a space station in the LEO in the early 2020s, and the U.S and Russia are planning to establish theirs at various orbital locations immediately after the expiry of the ISS in the second half of the next decade. Washington is considering a Boeing-led space station proposal – the International Space Station Exploration Platform (ISS-EP). The ISS-EP plans to use existing modules from the ISS structure and construct a modified structure in the LEO; this will be then propelled from LEO to Earth-Moon L2 point. Moscow plans to build a new space station – OPSEK – using some of its existing modules from the ISS and moving it into a High Inclination Orbit. The Russian space giant Khrunichev has also proposed a space station that will be positioned in an orbit around the Moon.

Although these proposals may seem to be indefinite, they follow a certain strategy. Space-faring nations are currently developing multi-stage super-heavy launch systems as well as two-stage-to-orbit or single-stage-to-orbit. Heavy launch systems enhance the logistics capabilities by tonnage and volume. The Chinese Long March 9, the American Space Launch System, and the Russian Angara are examples of super-heavy launch systems capable of carrying nearly 100 tons to LEO – good enough to build one-fourth of an ISS in a single launch.

The two/single stage-to-orbit reusable launch systems can attain manned expeditions and rapid delivery of cargo from Earth to space and vice versa. The development of the launch systems and space stations are part of the space infrastructure being designed for mining and industrial purposes. These stations will act as warehouses, production units, manned habitats and interlude bases to faraway mines and factories on the Moon and NEAs.

The material produced on space stations will be used for both space-bound and Earth-bound applications. The first minerals to be mined in space will be those that are scarce on Earth, those that can be extracted with ease in space, those that will remain profitable even with increased supply, and those that have low mass and volume. The lunar and asteroid REE may well fit these cardinal requisites.

The space stations of the future will be central to the logistics of mined resources and as processing centers for exotic materials – that are synthetically manufactured in space under micro-gravity from raw material procured from Earth or from other celestial bodies. Such materials have physical and chemical properties that are very different from those generated on Earth, and may well be used in biomedical, electronic, energy and other unforeseen applications.

A greater dependence on extra-terrestrial material will also reduce the dependence on Earth-based resources, which could then be designated as planetary strategic reserves. Extra-terrestrial resources will pave the way to revolutionary technologies and the dawn of industry in space, an industry with many players – a new world order in space.

Chaitanya Giri is a Doctoral Researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research and a contributor to Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.

By Arrangement: Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations