• This 1977 painting commissioned by NASA shows an asteroid mining mission to an Earth-approaching asteroid. (Wikimedia commons)Source: Wikimedia commons
Australia can play a significant role in the global race for developing automated off-Earth mining technology.
Signe Dean

22 Feb 2016 - 6:07 PM  UPDATED 22 Feb 2016 - 6:08 PM

For centuries humans have colonised faraway lands with an eye to collecting whatever resources were abundant in that place. Many wars have been fought to this end, and our civilisation continues to develop and require increasing amounts of various resources, often scarce or rapidly depleting ones.

Mining off-Earth is not a new idea, but with great strides taken in recent technological development and space exploration, our hope to mine asteroids and even the Moon is close to becoming a reality.

New laws required to govern space

Space mining is particularly attractive because some elements, such as lanthanum and samarium, are exceedingly rare on Earth, but abundant in space. These rare-earth minerals are used in various high-tech devices, including your very own tablet or smartphone.

Experts believe that we’re about to enter a completely new era in space exploration, this time driven by commercial interests, rather than scientific goals or nationalism-driven space conquests.

However, just like with mining projects on our planet, mining in space would need to be regulated by a host of legislation.

“We are literally shaping space for future generations and we need to be careful about the decisions we make,” says space archaeology expert Dr Alice Gorman from Flinders University in Adelaide.

Late last year the US passed the Space Act of 2015, which allows its space firms to own and sell natural resources mined in space. Earlier this month, Luxembourg announced its own plans to draft a legal framework which would define commercial activity in space.

Luxembourg passes legislation on space mining
Luxembourg has announced plans to legalise the commercial exploitation of asteroids, though such mining is believed to be at least a decade away.

In October last year, the Federal government announced it would be reviewing our own legislation on civil space activities in Australia. To conduct the review, the Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science Christopher Pyne appointed space law expert Professor Steven Freeland from Western Sydney University.

“We already have a lot of law on space, but the international framework on space is based primarily on UN treaties that were put together in a different era,” says Freeland.

"The paradigm of space has completely changed, it’s still highly strategic and highly relevant for military activities, but also space is very much open for business.”

No shortage of celestial bodies to mine

“There are about two million near-Earth asteroids that circle around the Sun at about the same speed and same distance as Earth,” says Associate Professor Serkan Saydam from UNSW’s Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research (ACSER).

We wouldn’t be bringing the materials back, however - the economical approach is to use the resources right there in space.

“A UNSW study has shown, for a particular iron-rich asteroid, given the existence of a market and other assumptions, the return on investment is 85 years if the ore is returned to Earth, but five years if used in space,” writes Professor Andrew Dempster, director of ACSER.

Utilising resources from asteroid mining could also help maintain and extend the life of vital communications satellites in Earth’s orbit.

Australian mining industry to lead the way

According to some experts, Australia has the mining industry experience and the scientific expertise to become a player in this new field, but there are many challenges yet to overcome.

“Space exploration and mining face similar issues and challenges,” says Saydam. “Australia has a world-leading mining industry, and 60 per cent of mining-related innovations happen here. We have very strong mining research capabilities.”

With huge mining operations in remote locations, Australian companies are at the forefront of implementing automation, which is going to be a key technology for space mining, adds Gorman.

In 2013, ACSER hosted the first ever Off-Earth Mining Forum, and a second one followed in November 2015. UNSW is also currently collaborating with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to investigate various space mining scenarios.

Researchers stress that it’s most likely space mining won’t be undertaken by humans, instead leaving the work to fully automated robotic mines. These would have to be tested right here on Earth, and Australia provides excellent conditions for such experiments. The first asteroid-mining robots could start out in our local deserts, before moving on to dig for gold on other worlds.