How can asteroids be reached? Between technology and international law. Projects and limits

Space research is probably the most expensive area of human endeavour. In the days of the Soviet Gruppa Izičenija Reaktivnogo Dviženija (GRID, Group for the Study of Jet Propulsion), founded in 1931, it was possible to test and develop rockets almost out of sheer enthusiasm, but the creation of spaceflight technology required the involvement of huge resources at State level, to the point that the Soviets with Sputnik 1 were the first to send an artificial satellite into orbit around the Earth (4 October 1957).

Private companies, instead, only appeared when space activities started to make profit. These companies, too, however only exist thanks to powerful State support, which starts with the recognition of the technologies created by the companies and ends with State orders for ongoing activities. Even the American multi-billionaire Elon Musk could not carry out expensive projects at his own expense. They are all carried out on partial, albeit high, funding and orders from NASA, i.e. at the expense of the US taxpayers.

We could also conclude that private companies in the space industry are a thinly veiled version of the transfer of lucrative State industries into private hands. This also applies to the private companies that have announced their plans to explore space resources. Behind all these companies there are powerful structures of the States concerned, as it is advantageous for governments that private companies are involved in problematic operations in space, since the State does not want to “interfere” in their private affairs and does not take responsibility for the actions of these companies, although everything these companies do is initiated and other-directed by State bodies.

The desire of space powers to justify huge financial investment in research, without which the industrial exploration of space resources (Moon, asteroids, meteorites, etc.) is impossible, lies in the very extraction of these resources. Since there are theoretically guarantees of a return on investment through the sale of the extracted resources, it is quite understandable that matters proceed in this way. Since the adoption of the “Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies” (the Outer Space Treaty) – which came into force on 10 October 1967, ten years after the Soviet venture – no agreement has been reached on the definition of an international “space law” that would protect space from probable future plunder. Hence what is the difference between the collection of lunar rock samples by US astronauts and the capture of an entire asteroid in a container as part of the asteroid redirection mission?

As the aforementioned title suggests, no one has yet embarked on space exploration for industrial purposes, but today a stream of stimulation has already begun that could cause severe conflicts in the future. The absence of legislative foundations determining the procedure for space exploration and the responsibility for its violation allows for a very loose interpretation of the principle that proclaims space to be the “property of all mankind”, without any kind of discrimination, on the basis of the equality of all countries and peoples.

Indeed, the US government bypassed this principle and adopted the House of Representatives 2262 – i.e. the US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act – on 25 November 2015, giving US citizens the right to own the resources they mined outside the borders of planet Earth. A similar law, based on national legislation, was adopted by the Luxembourg government in 2017. These “laws” are, in essence, contradictions that place the USA and Luxembourg in opposition to a celestial body X that both parties wish to exploit.

The absence of legislative foundations determining the procedure for space exploration and the responsibility for its violation allows for a very loose interpretation of the principle that proclaims space to be the “property of all mankind”.

It is quite clear that the lack of rules in international space legislation seriously slows down the activity in the exploration of space resources since the legislative initiative of countries – lacking a body placed above the parties – would create a state of chaotic anarchy. Let us revert, however, to the practical subject.

It seems to us that the development of the Moon’s mineral resources and of  asteroids, meteorites, comets, etc. is becoming ever more present in the media, and among high-ranking decision-makers.

The main mineral that makes up the Moon’s crust is basalt. It consists of half silicon oxides and half metal oxides (iron, titanium, magnesium, aluminium, etc.). In the presence of enormous energy resources in the form of a constant flow of solar energy, the extraction of metals from the lunar soil and the production of oxygen along the way will be economically justified. Metals (as structural materials) and oxygen (gas needed for astronauts’ breathing and oxidising agent for rocket fuel) will make their extraction on the Moon profitable in the very near future. This for now theoretical “profitability” means that the extraction of mineral resources on the Moon for the needs of industry on Earth would also compensate for the transport from the Moon to Earth.

Another of the most important resources that should also be a goal of space exploration is water. Water, one of the cheapest foodstuffs on Earth, is becoming gold because it is needed in space, and consequently because of the efforts that present-day science is making to discover it outside of Earth.

Astronomers claim that there may be large deposits of water ice on the Moon in places not reached by sun rays. Such places can be found in the valleys between the mountains in the circumpolar regions. However, the extraction of ice – where it is impossible to use solar panels, i.e. on the dark side – may be a very difficult task. It will almost certainly be easier to extract water from comets in which it makes up to 80% of the mass. However, methods for transporting comet nuclei using solar energy and the substance of the comet itself are being investigated so that a jet engine can work and be used for the extraction of water ice in space.

When examining the mountainous areas typical of the Moon, it is possible to select non-harsh – i.e. more or less flat – landing sites, and this is made possible by studying detailed photographs of the Moon surface. However, possible landers can be brought to these locations only with a good co-ordinate system. Today, the lunar co-ordinate system has a very low accuracy; the error in determining the position from these co-ordinates is hundreds of metres and the size of the area in which a lunar landing can be made is an ellipse with a size of 15×30 kilometres. Just imagine how to transport the parts of the future inhabited station to such an area, which must be found and delivered to a location, and only later proceed with the assembly of the station! Therefore, the problem of creating a high-precision and easy lunar co-ordinate system is currently very problematic.

Missile technology is so far the only way to launch spaceships and satellites into space and attempt industrial exploitation outside our planet. No matter how costly this technology is, States are doing so because there is simply no other way to gain further knowledge of space and consequently for its exploitation to get raw materials.

But when it comes to the industrial extraction of space resources and “colonisation” – or rather temporary occupation of the celestial bodies until the end of resources there – the situation will change. If the extraction of resources and their delivery to Earth is unprofitable due to the high cost of rocket technology, no one will deal with it. Without the creation of cost-effective means to launch payloads into space, mankind is doomed to remain on Earth and perish in it with time and the end of resources here.

There are so far no well-developed technologies in the world on which it will be possible to create a transport system to/from space in the near future. Most probably, conventional jet engines shall be used, although the aim is to try to obtain the energy for travel, fuel and oxidant directly in space. In this regard, it might be a useful idea to use the substance of comets or asteroids to create thrust, the same which has been proposed, instead, to counteract any dangerous space objects headed for collision with our planet. Long flights to asteroids, meteorite clusters and comets, so far remain sine die, i.e. out of the reach of manned astronautics. The level of cosmic radiation outside the Earth’s magnetic field is so high that astronauts would receive a lethal dose of exposure long before reaching their flight objectives. It is possible to create reliable protection against radiation, but the mass of the protective shell should exceed the mass of the spaceship itself by dozens of times, and science cannot yet imagine how to create effective and easy protection against such radiation.

Hence the participation of astronauts in the extraction of space resources on asteroids, comets and planets is currently unrealistic. At the same time, it is not even possible to fully automate the complex work of extracting mineral raw materials in deep space in the short term, and when we speak of “short term” in the history of space exploration we mean decades.

In the bowels of the Moon, protected by a thick layer of lunar soil, cosmic radiation will pose no danger. Mining for minerals in lunar mines could therefore be much more promising than in distant asteroids, at least for the time being.

In short, the long-term plans for the exploration of ultra-lunar space and the use of its resources cannot be specific for more than thirty years. For the time being, the top priority is the Moon. Some countries are focusing their main efforts on preparing for the development of lunar resources and the targeted search for individual asteroids that are relatively close.

Giancarlo Elia Valori
Giancarlo Elia Valori
Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is a world-renowned Italian economist and international relations expert, who serves as the President of International Studies and Geopolitics Foundation, International World Group, Global Strategic Business In 1995, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem dedicated the Giancarlo Elia Valori chair of Peace and Regional Cooperation. Prof. Valori also holds chairs for Peace Studies at Yeshiva University in New York and at Peking University in China. Among his many honors from countries and institutions around the world, Prof. Valori is an Honorable of the Academy of Science at the Institute of France, Knight Grand Cross, Knight of Labor of the Italian Republic, Honorary Professor at the Peking University