Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Questions about Asteroid Mining

What follows is based closely upon the Wow! Signal Podcast's Burst 8.

Lately, it’s been my sense that it’s time to spin up the asteroid mining conversation in earnest. Our most recent Unseen Podcast episode (#33) covered asteroid mining, and space policy expert James Muncy joined us for the first part of the show. We received a comment on the blog post for this episode by “Khani”, and here it is verbatim:


Question - (case 1) I travel to an asteroid of 100 meters in size. I start extracting materials from the "equatorial" zone. Is the material mine? (case 2) is the asteroid mine? (case 3) I move the asteroid, and now someone else lands on the other side and starts harvesting it. Is that "illegal" ? How much does the asteroid to be moved to be claimable? One meter?


Respectable test cases, I think, but we can go further.



While I don’t think intentionally moving all but the smallest asteroids is likely to be much of an issue, it does raise the question of operations around the so-called potentially hazardous asteroids, or PHAs. We talked about these last year with Jose Galache, Season 2, Episode 8. As of this writing, JPL identifies 1634 PHAs - asteroids that at some time in the future could pass close to the Earth and are at least 150 meters in size. This lower limit is small enough that mining activity at the asteroid could affect its orbit. While this doesn’t directly affect the issue of whether the mined material is the property of the miners, it certainly does raise the question of how we could safeguard against the weaponization of asteroids, or even the unintentional budging of an asteroid into the Earth’s path. I don’t know the answer to this, but I think it’s a fair question, and of those 1634 PHAs, there is a fair chance that one or more is ore rich, and can bring this issue up.


Then there is the question of conflict over a single, particularly rich asteroid that may attract more than one mining operation. My understanding of the new US law, is that only the extracted resources are owned by the miner, and there is nothing to prevent another miner from mining the same asteroid. You can see how this could get out of hand, and would seem to point to the need for an unambiguous claim system. The claim would be for the surface and subsurface area that is intended to be mined, not just for what has been mined so far. What might easily emerge from this would be a trading market in asteroid claims. You can see how it can get complicated.


How big could a claim be? Should there be an arbitrary size limit? Or , is there a smarter way to to give everyone a fair shot at mining a larger asteroid? Again, I don’t know the answer, but I hope smart legal minds are thinking about it.


So, my most burning question that emerges from this, is: is in-situ prospecting  - actually going to the asteroid and confirming that it is rich in a desirable resource - sufficient for staking a claim, that can be subsequently sold? I would think so, but the lawyers have not yet had their say. Again, complicated, but it could encourage the high risk of prospecting if the potential payoff is short term and lucrative. Again, I don’t know the answer, but I think it should be yes. Can you convince me otherwise?


It’s not just me that doesn’t have the answers, but I don’t think anyone does definitively, because there have been no test cases. My fervent hope is that these cases are settled in court, and not by vicious robot battles. It’s very hard for me to see how there could be winners from a violent conflict in space. So, this represents an opportunity to establish an international - or day I say, interplanetary - court to adjudicate conflicting claims on space resources. Such a court would hopefully set carefully reasoned and forward looking precedents with their decisions.

Let’s continue this conversation. If you’re knowledgeable on these matters, please contact me, and let’s talk. Or, just leave a comment on this blog post.