The hype is out of this world, but mining in space won’t save the Earth
We know that the world needs to move to cleaner energy sources to cope with the worst effects of climate change, but the technology required for the transition is very mineral intensive. So where will all these resources come from?
Much in the space industry points beyond Earth. Asteroids and the Moon are thought to contain abundant platinum group elements needed in the transition, as well as other valuable resources. This caused a push towards commercial mining in outer space.
California-based company AstroForge is the latest company to make headway in the space mining rush. Last week, the company announced plans to launch two missions this year – one to refine platinum from a sample of asteroid-like material, and another to find a near-Earth asteroid to mine.
Proponents of space mining often point to the potential benefits for Earth and its people. But how certain are these benefits? Our research casts doubt on many of them.
A very risky bet
Space mining supporters often claim that an abundance of space resources exist, and their exploitation would generate trillions of dollars in mining revenue.
But information about resources in space is scarce, highly variable and uncertain.
Such statements rely heavily on remote sensing technology and modelling: techniques that use interpretations, estimates, assumptions and probabilities. Whether mineral deposits that lie beyond the earth are commercially viable has not yet been proven.
Work on this is ongoing. For example, the OSIRIS-REx space mission collected a small sample from the near-Earth asteroid Bennu, and is bringing it back to Earth this year for study.
This year’s AstroForge missions also aim to strengthen the industry’s viability.
But so far, investment in the exploitation of space resources is even more speculative than mining on Earth.
Metallic minerals are present in meteorites and other space rocks. But research suggests that, except for platinum group elements, the concentrations of most metals in space material may be lower than on Earth.
NASA’s OSIRIS-REx space mission will arrive back on Earth this year.
Where does the waste go?
Mining on Earth often requires robust equipment to mine, handle and process large volumes of rock. Most of the rock is disposed of as waste once the material of interest, such as copper, has been obtained.
Waste disposal will be even more challenging in space. The full environmental and safety implications are not yet clear. But we know that space debris already falls to Earth quite regularly.
For example, space debris found in the Snowy Mountains in New South Wales last year was confirmed to belong to a craft owned by Elon Musk’s SpaceX company. And in the US state of Oklahoma in 1997, a woman who was exercising was apparently hit in the shoulder by a piece of falling space debris.
Mining on Earth often damages the natural environment, affecting soil, waterways, air quality and ecosystems.
In places where mining is strictly regulated, environmental and human safety issues must be addressed. But there are also numerous examples around the world where mining regulation is lax.
To date, there are no regulations or adequate waste management plans for mining outside the earth. Space mining has a lot to learn from the best practices and missteps of mining on Earth.
Space is not a supermarket
In 2017, American space entrepreneur Jeff Bezos said:
Every kind of element you need is available in very large quantities in space. And so, over the next few hundred years, that will allow us to have both a dynamic, expanding, growing, thriving, interesting civilization while still protecting this planet.
So will space really provide all the minerals the earth needs in coming centuries?
The current hype around extraterrestrial mining centers on platinum group elements such as palladium, rhodium and platinum. These elements are present in metallic asteroids.
Platinum is used in catalytic converters to reduce emissions in car exhausts, as well as in medical equipment and electronic devices.
But we need a much broader spectrum of commodities for the low-carbon transition. For example, large quantities of lithium, cobalt and rare earth elements are needed to make batteries and magnets.
Researchers claim to have discovered two metal-rich near-Earth asteroids that may contain very large amounts of iron, nickel and cobalt.
But the technology to access these minerals is still a long way off (if it happens at all). But the renewable energy transition must happen urgently – and for now the minerals on Earth will be mined.
Large volumes of lithium are required in the clean energy transition. Pictured: a lithium mine in the Northern Territory. Fleet Space Technologies
A new colonialism
The current space race reflects a colonial mindset in which the powerful rush to stake a claim in new territories – and whoever gets there first gets the riches.
This narrative is one of “techno-futurism”, where progress is measured by wealth generation, which in turn relies on technology development.
Should this gold rush-style bonanza be viable, only a small portion of the people will pocket the profits. The gap between the very rich and the rest of society would only widen.
Look down, not up
Viable and responsible space mining is a very distant prospect. But climate change is an urgent problem that needs solutions now.
Despite its many drawbacks, mining on Earth remains essential to the transition to a low-carbon energy economy.
Rather than space mining, positive environmental and social outcomes on Earth are better achieved by ensuring land mining is done in the most sustainable way possible.