The Great Space Mining Race

The Great Space Mining Race

On the 21st September, a spacecraft did something quite remarkable. Well, a second remarkable achievement, really. It had already flown tens of thousands of kilometres through cold, formless black differentiated only by the naked light of the sun, armed with a collection capsule and a twin solar power array. The target? An asteroid – Ryugu, so named from an underwater palace in a folk tale. 

That was in June. Three months later, it is pinned to Ryugu like a square of tissue paper on a barren chin of rock. This craft, the Hayabusa 2, is a plucky bastard. It launched two rovers that are, as I write, hopping in 15-minute intervals across a surface that is utterly alien to us, snapping pics of a hurtling desolation we’ve only really seen before in the third act of bad movies. A real asteroid. Wow. I mean, wow though, yeah? 

What’s not alien, however – in the scheme of capitalist enterprise – is why a few key companies are paying attention to this endeavour. Japan’s space agency can be forgiven for touting its achievement as purely scientific: that we may, when the Hayabusa 2 samples fall to earth, learn more about celestial bodies, their gaseous makeup in the work mill of the universe. But that can only go so far. Profit pulls us into its orbit more than discovery for discovery’s sake. Space, like any other environment, can be plundered. And we’re going to see the advent of that aim very shortly, if you listen to the people who care. 

In 2017, Goldman Sachs published a report on the foreseeable potential of asteroid mining. Read that again. An earthly bank, more accustomed to black holes in a budget than the rim of the Milky Way, thinks we’re ready to invest in rocks that could blow all life on the planet to smithereens. Do bankers count? It doesn’t matter, because a C-class asteroid the size of a football pitch may, we’re told, be worth $50 billion in platinum harvests. That’s 175 times more than we have now. It’s just the beginning, too. Some asteroids are packed with nickel, magnesium, gold and water. We have every reason to drill into them, extract their materials and ship them back to Terra Firma. 

This has been going on for a while, actually – it’s just that Japan have cracked the landing process, which bodes well for a tussle between The United States and (of all places) Luxemburg. Ever since the 1980s and a legislative revolution for satellite development, the little country has been quietly laughing behind its hands, preparing to incubate generations of galactic prospectors. Currently we should take note of Deep Space Industries, which is set to fire off a craft in 2019 or 2020 for the most water-rich targets in the solar system. 

At the same time, California has been looking to the moon and seeing dollar signs of its own. Reasoned voices in the scientific community view lunar mining as more achievable, and definitely closer to home. Moon Express, whilst blowing Google’s space-faring investment prize deadline like a wet fart, is on the cusp of launching the first ever privately-owned robot to land and gather minerals. Trillions are at stake. 

The cost of building, prepping and waving goodbye to spacecraft is getting less and less, but there are still ethical concerns to doing so – at least when we get to corporate monopoly. There’s the risk of taking an alien pathogen back home, for instance: the reason why a rocket probe should be prepared in various ways, depending on where it’s headed. Businesses might screw us all – infecting us with a head-splitting fungus or something – if they forget a cleaning ritual.

Also, what about property rights? Who owns an asteroid or a chunk of lunar stone? The 1967 Outer Space Treaty (basically the only good hangover from Soviet era US relations) prohibits claims of sovereignty on anything beyond our atmosphere. Yet it doesn’t bar companies from saying, “This is mine!” with whatever they find to sell. Maybe the future will be one of fierce space battles ignited by tax laws. Maybe George Lucas was right. 

That’s scary, as is the idea of human greed eclipsing our more curious escapades to the stars. But also cool, yeah? If one can fund the other, I’m down for a new kind of space race.