Australia will have asteroid mining before we have people living on Mars, according to leading Australian scientists.
And Australian National University astrophysicist Brad Tucker says the incentive is simple.
The federal government has announced the creation of a National Space Agency.
“You know why? Because there is money involved.”
Based at Mount Stromlo Observatory, Dr Tucker is part of a national research team developing a model for future Australian mining operation on asteroids.
The most viable option, according to Dr Tucker, is to mine an asteroid “locally” by nudging a near-earth asteroid into the gravitational grip of the Earth, moon and sun, which will keep it hovering above the Earth.
Essentially, mining asteroids.
The Australian Asteroid Mining Project formed in August and has ambitions of getting a prototype mission off the ground by mid 2020s.
As a nation experienced in mining and on the verge of getting its own space agency, Dr Tucker said this could be Australia’s opportunity to make its mark on space.
“If asteroid mining becomes successful, it will be the only time in human history when we have an infinite supply of resources,” he said.
“This has the potential to change the global scheme and how mining is done and it is not that far away.”
There’s any number of ways the team believes Australia could be on the cusp of astroid mining: either by sending spacecrafts out to nearby asteroids, or the more exotic option of trying to land an asteroid on Earth.
“This is not actually as far-fetched as it is made out to be. We’re looking at having a prototype flying and doing this by the middle of next decade,” Dr Tucker said.
The Australian-led project is made up of 60 academics from ANU, University of South Australia, University of Adelaide and University of Western Sydney.
Their expertise ranges across space engineering, astrophysics, economics and law, in order to respond to the myriad of challenges arising from an asteroid mining operation.
Now the team is looking for an Australian mining company to partner with.
“Most mining companies are used to mining in remote places and using robotics, just here on the Earth. You take that technology and put it in space and that is asteroid mining,” Dr Tucker said.
A celestial mining boom
The idea of exploiting asteroids for their natural resources is older than the US space program.
In 1903, renowned Russian rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovskii listed the “exploitation of asteroids” as one of fourteen points for the conquest of space.
There are different types to that are dense with resources. Some asteroids are rich with organic material and hold water, while others are mostly metallic.
To put this into perspective, Dr Tucker said the first target would be an asteroid about four-to-five kilometres wide. This type of asteroid could contain about 500,000 tonnes of precious metals.
“You could get 300 years’ worth of platinum from one asteroid, which will completely change the platinum market,” he said.
“You focus on the rare things that only have a few pockets on Earth. We can get a huge pocket and dominate the market.”
Two US companies, Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries, are spearheading the private sector push to mine asteroids.
But these private miners are not after gold.
Water will be a vital resource of the future space industry, as oxygen and hydrogen can be used to make rocket fuel.
Curtin University’s School of Mines Professor Phil Bland said space-based industries were less than two decades away.
“Actually building stuff in space for operation of stuff in space,” he said.
“Any sources of water in space would actually constitute a pretty vital resource.
“There is a category of what we call ‘primitive asteroids’, which haven’t been cooked up that much, that have abundant organics up to five-to-10 per cent water by weight, so quite a lot.
“If you got access to something like that then you have the potential of what people are essentially starting to call live off the land in space.
“Rather than launching everything you need, you just make your own fuel and atmosphere, which makes everything a lot cheaper.”
Dr Bland and Dr Tucker were a part of the NASA science team launching a probe called Osiris-Rex towards an asteroid called Bennu in September last year.
The probe will reach the asteroid next year and return a sample of soil for studies by 2023.
Dr Bland said a big part of that mission was characterising and figuring out the technologies needed to mine Bennu and other asteroids in space.
Another objective is the figure out how to orbit a small object with next to no gravitational pull.
“How do you set up a spacecraft that can orbit something small?” he asked.
While Australia is a late-comer to the space community, Dr Bland said we were well placed to become pioneers in our own right.
“I can tell you that our research scientists work with NASA all the time and reason we are partners with them is because we can actually compete intellectually with them in engineering all the time,” he said.
“We have got great locations for government and private launch sites, and one of our biggest [advantages is a] very active research base.
“It is like saying we’re late to the industrial revolution. That doesn’t mean you don’t industrialise. I would guess that within decades there will be private companies doing that kind of stuff on asteroids.”
Space Law 101
Working out international space laws is one of the biggest hurdles for asteroid exploitation.
Yes, space is subject to laws.
The countries at the forefront of this mining movement are the US and Luxembourg, a small but wealthy European nation that created a $US227 million fund to attract private companies wanting to mine the final frontier. Both countries have also recently set down legal frameworks.
ANU College of Law lecturer Imogen Saunders said the nations had enacted legislation giving their companies ownership rights over any resources mined from asteroids.
“There are actually two UN treaties that are relevant. There is the Outer Space Treaty 1967 and the Moon Treaty 1979. The Outer Space Treaty is the most widely ratified of the two,” Dr Saunders said.
“Both those countries are parties of that space treaty. So in their view they can give those ownership rights, consistent with their international law obligations.”
Australia is also included in both treaties.
The Outer Space Treaty makes no reference either way to the exploitation of space objects. However, it does insist that “the exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind.”
Outer space is basically like a giant Antarctica, of sorts, and is not subject to national ownership through occupation, claim of sovereignty or means of use.
“The Moon Treaty is much more straight-forward. It is quite clear that under the Moon Treaty, no nation state allowed to land on the moon and start exploiting it for their own purposes.
“The question there is whether that would extend to other celestial bodies like asteroids,” Dr Saunders said.
Dr Saunders said each different method of asteroid mining attracted its own legal implication.
For example, if you bring an asteroid back to Earth, it and its resources would under the jurisdiction of international law and the national law of the country it lands in.
“As long as the mining is done in space, then only international law and the laws of space will apply,” Dr Saunders said.
“The other issue is the consequences of moving an asteroid. If you are just mining on an asteroid and not moving it, the likelihood of affecting other people is small. But if you bring it into orbit or land it on Earth, the potential to impact on other countries or people is a lot higher.
“Then you would have legal issues in terms of responsibility if something happened.”
It is almost inevitable that private companies would be the ones to send out the first mining expeditions, but Dr Saunders said international laws would still technically apply because of the need to launch from a country’s territory.
“The point of this project is that none of these legal questions have definite answers yet. We have the two treaties that didn’t foresee the situation we are in today.”
It’s a big business, space
Australia’s aeronautical sector has grown 10 percent each year since the late 1990s, and the Federal Government’s announcement of a space agency is set to give the nation a bigger piece of a $420 billion global industry.
Zsuzsanna Csereklyei is a research fellow at ANU Crawford School of Public Policy and is figuring out the economics behind the all-Australian asteroid project.
With research expertise in energy transitions, Dr Csereklyei is also considering how the “infinite” availability of rare minerals might fit into current surge of technologies such as the lithium-ion batteries for electricity storage and electric cars.
According to Morgan Stanley, electric vehicles will make up 9 per cent of car sales by 2025, 16 per cent by 2030, 64 per cent by 2040 and 80 per cent by 2050.
Dr Csereklyei said material from Asteroids could solve supply shortages as demand for battery minerals sky-rockets.
“By 2050 we are going to have about 10 billion people on Earth and as societies get richer, more energy is being used. Can we achieve energy transitions with the help of asteroid mining?” she asked.
As to the cost of a maiden Australian mission, Dr Csereklyei said a prototype flight in seven to 10 years and the costs could start at about $100 million.
On the other hand, a mining operation on Earth can cost hundreds of millions of dollars as well.
There is profit to be had if they retrieve an object with potentially half a million tonnes of gold, which has an annual global production of about 3,000 tonnes.
But they can only mine all the “gold” if they land it, but that has other legal implications and much higher costs.
Having said that, flooding the market with a product makes its value decrease according to the rules of supply and demand.
“The revenue aspect of any mining [mining on Earth] is determined by the market forces. The difference is that concertation is rare elements is extremely high in an asteroid, and can be recovered and brought back to Earth,” Dr Csereklyei said.
Dr Csereklyei is now simulating how an abundant asteroid mining supply could impact the commodity market back on terra-firma.
“Yes, it might impact that market itself. But we hope it would be increasing the availability for certain metals that are curtail for future electronics and batteries industries,” she said.
Dr Tucker said there were two ways to look at this: an opportunity of a threat.
Australia has a chance to put combine their burgeoning space industry with an established and experienced mining sector and show the space community how it is done.
“Or you think about what risk this is to the Australian mining sector. Imagine a foreign country like China that imports a lot of material,” Dr Tucker said.
“They throw money at it, and there are various super powers that are doing that right now. They figure out how to do and they don’t have to import anything from Australia anymore.”
Source: WAtoday News