Tech entrepreneurs begin galactic gold rush: space mining

A number of companies hope to soon harness the virtually infinite resources that outer space has to offer, marking the start of what could be the next phase of space exploration.

Planetary Resources/AP/File
This computer-generated image from 2012 provided by Planetary Resources, a group of high-tech tycoons that wants to mine nearby asteroids, shows a conceptual rendering of satellites prospecting a water-rich, near-Earth asteroid.

While Elon Musk and other billionaire entrepreneurs grow increasingly closer to the finish line of a heated race to determine who will be the first to send humans to Mars, another type of space exploration company has emerged with a very different goal: not simply to bring people to space, but to bring space resources to people. 

Companies such as Moon Express, Deep Space Industries, and Planetary Resources hope to soon harness, and in some cases bring to Earth, the virtually infinite untapped resources that space has to offer. And, as 2017 nears, some plan to launch their first exploratory and experimental missions within the next year, marking the beginning of what could be the next phase of space exploration. 

Supporters of space mining – and the companies themselves – speculate that, if successful, their missions could solve conflicts over the limited resources on Earth, potentially reducing the number of wars fought over such matters. But some critics are skeptical that bringing more resources to Earth will actually decrease conflict, and express concern that harvesting the limitless, valuable resources at a time when there are few rules regulating the industry may prove dangerous in the long run.

"Everything we hold of value on this planet, metals, minerals, real estate, energy sources, fuel – the things we fight wars over – are literally in near infinite quantities in the solar system," said Peter Diamandis, one of the founders of the asteroid-mining company Planetary Resources, in a 2013 speech. According to Mr. Diamandis, humans have a "moral obligation to become an interplanetary species," as "the entire human race will be the beneficiary" of mining resources in space. 

The potential benefits of space mining have not only been touted by the heads of the companies who will directly benefit, but also by some scientists, including famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.

"If you haul an asteroid the size of a house to Earth, it could have more platinum on it than has ever been mined in the history of the world," Mr. Tyson said in a radio interview in 2014. "More gold than has ever been mined in the history of the world. When that happens, the scarcity that has led to human-to-human violence, there’s a chance it could all go away." 

While Deep Space Industries (DSI) and Planetary Resources are primarily focused on mining asteroids, the company Moon Express aims to mine the moon – though not in the traditional sense of mining, its founder, Naveen Jain, is careful to note. Rather than drilling holes in the moon, the company hopes to harvest treasure found on the lunar surface, deposited by millions of meteors. The estimated mineral wealth of the moon, as of 2014, is somewhere between $140 quadrillion and $500 quadrillion.

Variety can also be found in the proposed destinations for the mined resources, as DSI and Planetary Resources aim to distribute resources such as water and metals not on Earth, but in space. 

"Our business is about obtaining resources and using them pretty close to where we got them," Planetary Resources chief executive officer and co-founder Chris Lewicki told The Guardian. "With space travel, you need a really big rocket to take along tiny amounts of things. Ultimately, we want to be able to send more people and bring less stuff." 

As the potential for space mining grows increasingly closer to becoming a reality, some countries have begun to grapple with how to regulate the industry. In November 2015, President Obama signed the US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, establishing that while no nation can claim ownership of an asteroid or other heavenly body, as per the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, US companies will be allowed to extract, and claim ownership of, any materials they find in outer space.

The small European state of Luxembourg, which earlier this year set aside more than $200 million for asteroid mining initiatives, is close to passing similar legislation, according to Meagan Crawford, vice-president of strategic communications for DSI. 

"We expect in the next few years there will be several bilateral and multilateral agreements that will settle on an international convention for how this is going to be regulated, similar to how deep-sea mining is handled today," Ms. Crawford told The Guardian this week.

For now, the overall lack of legislation regulating the industry has some critics worried about the possible consequences of moving forward with mining efforts. 

"This drill-now, ask-questions-later approach could, first of all, feasibly disrupt an opportunity to complete a careful study of a new environment. Samples will be made available to scientists, but the profit motive could corrupt an opportunity to fully absorb new info about asteroids before we drop in the drill bit," wrote Brian Merchant for Vice's Motherboard in 2013. "And forging ahead could eventually lead to serious tensions, decades or so down the line, if and when asteroid mining is a competitive industry."

Others are skeptical that the industry will truly be effective in reducing the number of conflicts over resources, and suggest that the new sources of wealth may just be "one more thing for us to scrabble over."

"It’s exhilarating, this notion that tech advances could end scarcity as we know it, relegating wars over mineral wealth and energy sources to the list of woes defeated by science, alongside plague and polio," writes Rachel Riederer for New Republic. "But why wouldn’t riches from the heavens cause conflicts and problems? Their vulgar terrestrial cousins always have." 

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