Human society has become increasingly reliant on mined resources. Space mining offers an approach to alleviate some environmental impacts of mining on Earth, allowing for the exploration and use of resources that are not readily available on our planet. However, a sustainable approach to space mining must be established to secure the sector's future.
Image Credit: Dotted Yeti/Shutterstock.com
Is Mining Depleting Earth’s Resources?
The global mining industry is one of the most significant sectors, valued at $2022.6 billion in 2022 and expected to reach a valuation of $2145.15 billion in 2023.
There are concerns surrounding the industry's potential to exhaust Earth's resources, coupled with its role in contributing 4-7% of annual greenhouse gas emissions, thus playing a pivotal part in global warming. Furthermore, mining procedures inflict environmental damage and pose risks to individuals near mining sites.
These substantial drawbacks within the industry have prompted scientists to contemplate innovative approaches to resource extraction.
Space mining has emerged as an increasingly likely alternative to mining on Earth. However, doubts have been raised regarding the sustainability of the proposed practice. In a time where the need to protect natural resources has never been more apparent, there is pressure for the space mining trailblazers to demonstrate if and how the practice can operate sustainably.
What is Space Mining?
Space mining is the process of obtaining the resources we need on Earth from celestial bodies such as asteroids and comets. Space mining has the potential to provide Earth with a sustainable source of rare materials and resources that are becoming increasingly scarce on our planet.
There is the potential to obtain a wealth of resources in space, including the rare isotope helium-3 used as fuel for nuclear fusion reactors, platinum group metals, rare Earth metals, such as erium, neodymium, and yttrium, silicon, iron, nickel, cobalt, carbon, zinc, gold, silver, and even water.
While space mining is still in its early days, many companies are already active in research and development for space mining processes. Deep Space Industries (US), Planetary Resources (US), Moon Express (US), OffWorld (US), SpaceFab.US (US), NASA (US), ispace (Japan), JAXA (Japan), Asteroid Mining Corporation (UK), and CNSA (China), are just some of the companies and space agencies who are currently established in the space mining sector.
Notably, startup AstroForge has recently announced plans to launch two missions, the first of which set off in April to refine its technique for refining platinum from samples of asteroid-like material. For the first mission, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket was used. Information on space resources is sparse, and the mission will be valuable in deepening our understanding of how space mining might be achievable.
Can the Space Mining Industry Be Sustainable?
Space mining could, theoretically, be sustainable. First, processes must be established so that the industry does not interfere with the natural balance of space environments.
To establish sustainable space mining practices, it is necessary to determine how the impact on the celestial body being mined can be minimized. It is also vital to find efficient ways to process and transport the extracted resources back to Earth, given that space travel emits black carbon into the stratosphere thanks to rocket launches.
Early attempts at space mining should focus on small-scale operations and use existing technologies to mitigate environmental risks to set up sustainable practices that can then be scaled up.
International and national regulations must be developed to guarantee that mining activities are sustainable, have a minimal environmental impact, and operate within acceptable ethical and safety standards.
Finally, there are also ownership and territorial rights issues within space. These must be addressed to avoid conflicts between nations and multinational corporations aiming to exploit space resources.
What Does the Future Look Like For Space Mining?
Much more research is needed before sustainable space mining practices are possible.
Today’s society has become increasingly dependent on mined resources. In middle-income countries, residents use twice the amount of mined resources than they did two decades ago.
This increased demand will likely propel space mining efforts forward. While it is uncertain when space mining will begin, much investment has been made into this sector, and developments will likely accelerate.
Space mining has a lot of potential to alleviate the environmental impacts of mining on Earth. However, as experts point out, it is essential to ensure that space mining does not establish the same destructive processes in space.
References and Further Reading
Cecilia Jamasmie. (2023). Asteroid mining startup AstroForge readies first mission [online]. mining.com Available at: https://www.mining.com/asteroid-mining-startup-astroforge-readies-first-mission/ (Accessed May 2023)
Here’s how the mining industry can respond to climate change [online]. McKinsey. Available at: https://www.mckinsey.com/capabilities/sustainability/our-insights/sustainability-blog/here-is-how-the-mining-industry-can-respond-to-climate-change (Accessed May 2023)
Kathryn Moore and Juliana Segura-Salazar. (2023). The hype is out of this world, but mining in space won’t save the Earth [online]. The conversation. Available at: https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/bitstream/handle/10871/132379/Segura%20Salazar%20and%20Moore%202023.pdf?sequence=1 (Accessed May 2023)
Sustainable space mining. Nat Astron 3, 465 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41550-019-0827-7