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lunar base
Over the last five years, the issue of using space resources has shifted from asteroid mining to lunar exploration. (credit: ESA)

The space resources debate pivots from asteroids to the Moon


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Five years ago this week, President Obama signed into law the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (CSLCA) of 2015. The bill, as its name suggests, primarily dealt with commercial launch issues, such as extending the indemnification regime for commercial launch liability and establishing a class of spaceflight participants known as “government astronauts” who would be treated differently than their commercial counterparts.

The CSLCA, though, is best known for a section that was once a standalone bill, the Space Resource Exploration and Utilization Act of 2015. That section stated that any US company that extracted resources from asteroids or other celestial bodies beyond Earth would be entitled to them, “including to possess, own, transport, use, and sell the asteroid resource or space resource obtained in accordance with applicable law.”

“What we’re trying to do is make sure that there is a norm of behavior that says that resources can be extracted and that we’re doing it in a way that is in compliance with the Outer Space Treaty,” said Bridenstine.

The law, ensuring that companies has the rights to space resources they extracted, was perhaps the apex of the boom—such as it was—for asteroid mining in the last decade. At the time the bill became law, two startups, Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources, were planning a series of missions to near Earth objects for prospecting and later mining, the bill was seen as an essential step to enabling those plans.

Alas, while it may have been an essential step, it was not the only step. Both companies faltered, struggling to raise money and launch even basic precursor missions. Planetary Resources, on the verge of shutting down, was acquired in October 2018 by ConsenSys, a blockchain company; after pivoting to a space situational awareness project called TruSat, ConsensSys shut down the business earlier this year. Deep Space Industries, which shifted its focus to smallsat components, was acquired by Bradford Space in early 2019 (see “The asteroid mining bubble has burst”, The Space Review, January 7, 2019.)

The interest in space resources, though, persists, although with a different destination in mind: the Moon. The reinvigoration of lunar exploration through NASA’s Artemis program, as well as the space programs of China and other nations, has brought new attention to lunar resources, notably water ice at the poles that could sustain future lunar bases and fuel—literally—exploration of the Moon and beyond.

US space policy has reflected that interest in space resources, and rights to those resources. The Artemis Accords includes a section on space resources, including language that states that “the extraction of space resources does not inherently constitute national appropriation” as defined, and prohibited, by the Outer Space Treaty. That language has been highlighted, and in some cases criticized, by space law experts (see “The Artemis Accords take shape”, The Space Review, October 26, 2020).

The US has pushed for that point of view in other ways, such as an executive order this spring that directed government agencies to promote its policy on the use of space resources (see “Putting the White House executive order on space resources in an international context”, The Space Review, April 27, 2020).

In September, NASA announced it would buy lunar regolith obtained by commercial landers: a token purchase (on the order of $25,000 for a few hundred grams) intended to set a precedent. “What we’re trying to do is make sure that there is a norm of behavior that says that resources can be extracted and that we’re doing it in a way that is in compliance with the Outer Space Treaty,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said at an event where he announced the plans.

“I am convinced that ESRIC will also play a key role in this cooperation, this inspiring cooperation with the American space agency,” said Fayot.

But no country, perhaps, has staked its plans on space resources more than Luxembourg. Around the time the US enacted the CSLCA, the country was embarking on its own space resources initiative, called SpaceResources.lu, seeking to attract companies involved in the space resources industry. Several companies did set up operations in Luxembourg and received investment from the government, which also passed legislation regarding space resources rights modeled on the US law.

However, the asteroid mining boom has gone bust, and the biggest political figure in the country involved in that space resources initiative, deputy prime minister Étienne Schneider, resigned early this year. Yet, the country has retained an interest in space resources, but now focused on the Moon, as shown by being one of the original eight countries to sign the Artemis Accords.

Last week, the country’s space agency, in partnership with ESA, opened the European Space Resources Innovation Centre (ESRIC). The center, based at the Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology, will support research on utilization of space resources and also serve as a business incubator for companies in the field.

“ESRIC is well-positioned to become an internationally recognized center of expertise related to the use of space resources,” said Claude Meisch, Luxembourg minister of higher education and research, at an event formally inaugurating the center.

While officials didn’t go into details at the event on the research ESRIC will support, it was clear the interest in space resources focused more on the Moon than asteroids, including roles in the Artemis program. Mike Gold, the acting associate administrator for international and interagency relations at NASA, congratulated Luxembourg officials for establishing the center in prerecorded remarks, thanking them for signing the Artemis Accords and congratulating the country “for its trailblazing work on space resource policy.”

“We’re no longer discussing the fundamental principles of can you do this within the Outer Space Treaty. It’s now shifted more to the question of how do you do this,” said Cheney.

“Alongside ESA, we also plan to also develop our partnership with NASA,” said Franz Fayot, Luxembourg minister of the economy, citing the Artemis Accords. “I am convinced that ESRIC will also play a key role in this cooperation, this inspiring cooperation with the American space agency.”

While the CSLCA didn’t advance the asteroid mining industry, it has helped shape the conversation about space resources. “The debate has changed. The developments over the last five years has changed the nature of what we are discussing,” said Thomas Cheney, a lecturer in space governance at The Open University and executive director of the Centre for a Spacefaring Civilization, during a webinar last week marking the fifth anniversary of the legislation. “We’re no longer discussing the fundamental principles of can you do this within the Outer Space Treaty. It’s now shifted more to the question of how do you do this.”

“The discussion is very much in flux,” said Chris Newman, a professor of space law and policy at Northumbria University and a member of the board of the center, in the webinar. He argued that there’s no longer a belief that simply using resources is a form of national appropriations forbidden by the treaty. “What we’re seeking to do is use it, and mining is a perfectly decent use of a resource.”

But they acknowledged that shift whether space resources can be used to how they’re managed is something still in progress. “We are now moving from talking about purely hypothetical concepts to the nitty-gritty actual details of what this entails,” Cheney said. “That will take time. I don’t anticipate that happening any time soon. I think we’re talking decades, if not even longer.”

The same might be said for asteroid mining itself.


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