Space mining transactions could appear within the next decade, according to experts at the third annual Off Earth Mining Forum, held in Sydney, Australia, this week. Andrew Dempster, director of the Australian Center for Space Engineering Research, made the bold prediction this week to Xinhua media at the forum.
The near-term opportunity for space mining will center on extracting water from sources like the Moon or Mars in order to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen, two atoms that form the basis of liquid propellant used in rockets. By extracting water from the lunar surface and producing fuel on site — a process referred to as in-situ resource utilization — the Moon can serve as a fuel depot for ships that are returning to Earth or moving further out into the solar system.
While the basic technologies for space mining are available today, Dempster noted there are some technical obstacles that still need to be overcome — specifically in developing advanced robotics capable of performing remote mining in space environments.
Space mining also faces a set of regulatory and legal hurdles. Dempster told Xinhua:
“On the legal side, it is very important that international law is followed by everyone involved and that all the stakeholders and international players are happy with what everyone else is doing. We are hoping that the way the legal international framework is set up will allow companies to mine in space, but it will need a precedent and some testing to make sure the law actually supports that.”
But perhaps the biggest hurdle to the development of a space mining economy is the lack of customers. Access to a fuel depot could help propel the development of a diverse space economy, supporting sectors such as space tourism, lunar colonies, in-space manufacturing and deep space exploration. At present, however, there is no demand for propellant on the Moon, or elsewhere in space — which gives the emerging market a chicken-or-egg dilemma.
While there has been plenty of discussion of space mining among incumbents and new entrants in the field, the industry has been slow to put in motion strategies that might advance the development of a space mining market.
Still, there are signs that things may be changing. In 2016, US-based launch provider ULA announced its “Cislunar 1,000” strategic plan for the development of a space economy that can support 1,000 humans living in space. A central piece of that plan involves refueling spacecraft in cislunar space, which would require the creation of a fuel depot. That means ULA could become the first customer of a fuel depot, if one is ever built.
Meanwhile, Luxembourg has adopted a legal and regulatory framework for space mining and ownership of resources that are extracted in space. The Luxembourg government has also begun investing in space mining firms in hopes of luring them to Luxembourg. So far, at least two US-based space mining companies have opened up offices in the country.