When you hear the word mining, do you picture the Moon? What was once the subject matter of science fiction novels and movies will be reality in the not too distant future. As the prospects of space mining continue to grow, countries and organizations around the world have turned their attention to laying the groundwork for a regulatory regime for this future industry.
A Canadian-led effort, made up of prominent scientists and government officials, lobbied the United Nations earlier this year to develop uniform rules for space mining. In the August 2020 letter sent by the Outer Space Institute at the University of British Columbia to the President of the United Nations General Assembly, the group calls on the United Nations to develop a multilateral and cooperative regulatory regime for outer space resource extraction. As part of this effort, the Outer Space Institute has also published the “Vancouver Recommendations on Space Mining” which are similarly aimed at promoting a multilateral, cooperative and science-based approach to the future regulation of space mining.
These initiatives were taken in response to an April 2020 Executive Order issued by Donald Trump that firmly rejected the idea of outer space being an international common area for resources. This policy shift is part of the “Artemis Accords”, a program through which the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the United States government hope to create a regulatory framework for corporate mining activities beyond Earth. Governmental and corporate activities in outer space are currently governed by the United Nations Outer Space Treaty of 1967 which bans military and nuclear projects and operations outside of Earth. However, this treaty is silent on the status of space mining.
As part of the Artemis Accords, NASA recently announced in September 2020 that it will be soliciting bids from potential space miners to travel to the Moon. Specifically, NASA is asking for bids from anyone willing to finance their own lunar expedition to collect roughly 500 grams of lunar rock and soil samples that NASA will then buy for US$15,000 to US$25,000 in total per Moon contract. While the reward may pale in comparison to the cost of the trip, the successful bidder will have a chance to make history as the first commercial space miner. NASA is using this bid program as a first step in creating a regulatory regime for the extraction and trade of space resources, which will one day be used to regulate mining activity on the Moon, asteroids, and even other planets. NASA has stated that the development of a regulatory regime is necessary given that space mining will likely become a major industry in the future. In fact, groups in other countries have recently announced their own space mining initiatives. A Chinese firm, Origin Space, recently announced that it would be launching an asteroid mining robot in November 2020. While not a fully functioning mining operation, the launch of this mining robot will be used to demonstrate that the commercial mining of asteroids is possible with today’s technology.
While a functional and commercially feasible space mining industry will not be established in the short term, the Canadian Government has recognized that space mining will one day become an important industry for Canadian mining companies. In fact, space mining was recognized as a ‘future frontier’ for the Canadian mining sector in the 2020 Canadian Minerals and Metals Plan published by Mines Canada, which was discussed in this previous Dentons Mining blog post. Being the home of some of the most successful mining companies in the world, the development of a space mining industry will undoubtedly have a substantial impact on Canadian interests and companies. Innovation and a forward-looking perspective are necessary to ensure that the Canadian mining industry continues to lead as humanity prepares to explore new opportunities beyond our planet.