Russia’s official position on the potentially lucrative field of asteroid mining is that it is outlawed by the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which declares that space is “the province of mankind,” and that its use and exploration must “benefit all mankind.” But players in Russia’s space industry are increasingly convinced that the country should follow in the footsteps of nations like the U.S. and Luxembourg that have passed legislation allowing private companies to profit from space resources, a panel discussion devoted to the topic at the Open Innovations forum at Skolkovo this week showed.
Some asteroids contain water, which can be turned into fuel for deep-space missions. Image: Pixabay.
For years, the idea of accessing the wealth of precious metals and other raw materials contained by asteroids and the moon has interested spacefaring nations, but remained in the realm of fantasy due to the expense and difficulty of physically extracting the resources and returning them to Earth, not to mention the international space treaty. But as technology evolves and space firms like SpaceX eye the opportunities for deep-space missions, including to Mars, the target of being able to refuel in space using the materials available has crystallised plans to harness near-Earth resources.
Last year, Luxembourg startled the world by announcing it was going to create a legal framework for asteroid mining companies from anywhere in the world, adding that it would invest 200 million euros in the sector. The country’s Economy Minister, Etienne Schneider, came to Russia to take part in Tuesday’s discussion, titled “Resource Mining on Asteroids: A New Space Race?” and explain why his nation had taken such a bold step.
“Luxembourg is a very small country, meaning it’s always had to reinvent itself, its economy,” he said, pointing out that the European country had been a major steel nation until that industry saw a slump in the 1970s, after which it decided its new business model would be a financial centre. The country went from having three or four banks to becoming one of the biggest private banking centres in the world, said Schneider.
The country’s second transformation came in the 1980s, and was more controversial – and its first foray into space. The Luxembourg government launched the communications satellite company SES, underwriting the first launch for the equivalent of 5 percent of the country’s total annual budget, since no insurance company would do so, said Schneider, recalling that public outrage ensued, including in parliament.
“But we had the courage to do it and now it’s the biggest private satellite company in the world,” he said.
Etienne Schneider, Luxembourg's Economy Minister, says his country is open to cooperation. Photo: Sk.ru.
Luxembourg took the decision to back asteroid mining after recognising that humankind was inevitably going to expand into space, said Schneider.
“We have never stayed in one place; we have always sought new opportunities, and we see there are massive opportunities for doing business in space in the future,” he told the conference.
Luxembourg’s position is that the international space treaty does not preclude asteroid mining.
“We analysed the Outer Space Treaty, looked at what it allows and doesn’t allow, and we came to the conclusion that it didn’t address the issue of doing business in space because at that time it was like science fiction … but it doesn’t forbid it either,” said Schneider.
Nor was Luxembourg the first country to interpret the law in this way. In 2015, the U.S. passed a new law recognising the right of U.S. nationals to own, use and sell any resources they obtain in space.
“The outer space treaty says everything in space belongs to humankind,” said Schneider. “If as a private company you go up there and bring something back down and it belongs to all of humankind, that’s not a good business model, I think we can all agree on that,” he said, arguing that a legal infrastructure is essential to attract venture capitalists to this area.
He compared the legal status of space resources to those of international waters.
“No country is allowed to possess the international sea, but you are allowed to fish and you’re allowed to commercialise the fish. We don’t want to claim an asteroid or the moon as Luxembourg territory, but just to allow astronauts to go up there to do business in space, and to possess and commercialise whatever they find there,” said Schneider.
The panel at Skolkovo included Rick Tumlinson, co-founder of Deep Space Industries (right). Photo: Sk.ru.
In the U.S., private companies seeking to harvest cosmic resources have already appeared, such as Deep Space Industries, Planetary Resources and Kepler Energy & Space Engineering. Such startups could appear in Russia too – but only if the authorities change their position on the law, said Sergei Ivanov, CEO of Dauria Aerospace, a private Russian satellite-maker and resident of the Skolkovo Foundation’s space cluster.
“Private investment goes where it is at least in some way protected,” he said, expressing hope that a public debate would soon begin both in Russia and at an international level on assessing legal initiatives.
“We [Russia] risk passing up on something big and really important, and in a field in which Russian companies could have a really good starting position,” said Ivanov.
Yevgeny Kuznetsov, director of subsidiary funds at RVC, a state investment vehicle, agrees.
“The state has two choices: to declare itself a stick-in-the-mud and get left behind, or get ahead like the adventurists, and support them either in terms of technology or legislation,” he said.
“It’s dangerous for us to let this moment pass. If in genome editing, for example, we’ve never been ahead of the pack, then in this field – an area in which Russia has always been strong – we would be shooting ourselves in the head. Cosmic expansion is inevitable,” said Kuznetsov.
Rick Tumlinson, the co-founder of Deep Space Industries – which plans on landing on an asteroid by 2020 – and several other space companies and organisations, agreed that Russia has everything to gain from changing its position on space resources.
“Russia will have an economic renaissance if it can capture the brilliance of all of the young people and the people in this building and harvest that and aim it towards space,” he told the Open Innovations conference.
Oleg Gorshkov says the technology to mine asteroids already exists. Photo: Sk.ru.
Tumlinson said he knew “at least four large Russian investors working behind the scenes” in the new space race. “You’ll probably hear about some of them in the next year or two,” he added.
In further good news for those hoping Russia will change its position, Schneider said he was due to meet with Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev later on Tuesday to discuss “possible collaboration with Russia.”
The most precious resource
Of the legal, financial and technical obstacles to asteroid mining, the last area is the least problematic, said Oleg Gorshkov, director general of the Central Research Institute of Machine Building, part of Russia’s state space corporation Roscosmos. The technology is in place to go on missions to asteroids, he said, citing Japan’s Hayabusa mission, in which an unmanned spacecraft landed on the near-Earth asteroid Itokawa, extracted samples of material from it and delivered them to Earth, and NASA’s ongoing Dawn mission to the giant asteroid Vesta and dwarf planet Ceres.
Vyacheslav Turyshev, a professor at Moscow State University, agreed, pointing out that it has become much cheaper to build small spacecraft in the past 10 years, as well as easier to detect small near-Earth asteroids. If previously, spotting small asteroids required the use of large expensive telescopes on Earth, compact yet powerful telescopes will be sent into space in the next few years and will detect all the asteroids that both pose a threat to Earth or could contain precious resources, he said. And telescopic spectrometry and infrared technology can be used to work out the mass and trajectory of asteroids and what they are made of, he added.
Of the three kinds of asteroids, it’s the S-types and M-types that contain precious metals that are coveted on Earth. But the pioneers in this new space race will begin by tapping C-type asteroids, which contain a lot of water: a precious commodity in space, as it can be broken down into hydrogen and oxygen and used to make rocket propellant.
“The expert consensus is that the first business will be water,” said Dauria’s Ivanov.
“The first company to make money will obtain water from asteroids or the moon, and sell it in near-space orbit. The technologies needed for this are either ready or will appear in the next two to three years … And in 10 years at most, we will see the first company in space selling water – in the form of fuel for satellites,” he said, clarifying that it would be a cheaper way to propel satellites.
“Our colleagues from Deep Space Industries have already signed their first contract,” said Ivanov, adding that the market is estimated at $1-10 billion.
Turyshev agreed that water-containing asteroids are the priority.
“We need to be able to make fuel in space. Taking it from Earth is expensive: $30,000 per litre of water,” he said.
“Once we can make fuel in orbit, we can use reusable rockets: they won’t need to come back down to Earth to refuel. Metals can come later: first we need water,” he said.
Sergei Ivanov, CEO of Dauria Aerospace, one of Russia's first private space companies. Photo: Sk.ru.
One giant leap for mankind?
If the scramble to pass legislation, develop technology and raise the hefty funding required sounds like a new space race, that’s because that’s precisely what it is. But this time, it’s not taking place against the backdrop of a Cold War.
“The new race is going to be commercial. It’s going to be private companies around the world competing with each other, and hopefully in enlightened partnerships with their governments, because that’s a critical part of it,” said Tumlinson.
“The idea of the policies that were created in the 1960s during the Cold War, where we had two superpowers who were going to duke it out in space, was to make sure they didn’t get out there and expand their empires,” he said.
“Now, in the culture of the internet and connectivity, it’s about the empowerment of individuals and small groups and entrepreneurial firms,” he said, adding that working together was key.
Luxembourg would like to cooperate with “all like-minded countries,” said Schneider, adding that his country will host a conference next month devoted to the economic opportunity of space, NewSpace Europe.
Luxembourg has already signed memorandums of understanding with Portugal and the UAE, and plans to sign one with Japan in the near future, he said.
“We want to find ways for the peaceful exploitation of space in the interests of humankind,” said Schneider. “Then we’re back to the space treaty of 1967, which says that everything in space is for the benefit of humankind. That’s exactly what we want to do.”