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Asteroid mining: the new frontier of eco-sustainability?

Updated: Feb 10, 2022

Source: https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/asteroids-comets-and-meteors/asteroids/16-psyche/in-depth/

1. What problems can space mining solve?


The Kardashev scale measures the technological level of a civilization based on the amount of energy used and what resources it is able to exploit, providing 3 levels; humanity is around 0.8, being able to exploit almost all the resources available on Earth.


The exponential growth of technology and the consumer society in which we live are causing (and will cause) a shortage of certain resources, already difficult to extract and of great economic value: the REE (Rare Earth Elements) that is a group of 17 chemical elements that can be found both near the Earth's crust and in some particular areas of the Earth. They are of great importance because they are used in the production process of magnets, optical fibers, components, batteries, as well as alligators in various metal alloys.


The problem lies in the recycling of these materials, as well as their high price, and the monopoly exercised by China, which controls about 95% of the circulation of REE.


REEs are just one example of the catastrophic damage that heavy industries (and in particular the mining industry) inflict on our ecosystem and, consequently, on us who live in it.


There are many hypothesized solutions to contain environmental damage and allow humanity to thrive, thanks to new technologies, and one of the most ambitious is to gradually move this infrastructure off the planet, making Earth a "Garden of Eden" of some sort.


Asteroid mining, however, has a number of legal and technological hurdles to overcome before it can become a reality, as the concept of common interest in reference to extraterrestrial celestial bodies in the 1967 Treaty on the Use of Space must be revised. With this classification, the signatory States of the 1967 Treaty wanted to prevent the States from any kind of exploitation of celestial bodies which had no scientific purpose and was not of common interest for mankind - not a word instead about the exploitation of these resources by private individuals - while in the so-called "Moon Treaty" of 1979, ratified only by 13 States, the possibility of exploitation of celestial bodies with the approval of the other signatory States is foreseen. In the latter, it is possible to find the concept of common heritage in reference to celestial bodies, with the intention of preventing the individual exploitation of space resources by States or private individuals, reserving instead the wealth to future generations..


2. Is space mining economically viable?


These initiatives involve a long-term investment phase (10 years or so) to lay the foundation for the creation of the in-orbit infrastructure, which is destined for exponential growth (an estimated exponential factor of 1000 compared to current terrestrial infrastructure) and full automation.


Moving infrastructure into orbit involves a two-phase division of the project: upstream and downstream.

The initial phases of this project are the most onerous, since the first infrastructures will be arranged by transporting most of the materials for the construction from Earth; each mission, however, will make the next one less expensive, until reaching an automated infrastructure system able to grow by itself through 3D printing and robotic personnel, at first mostly remotely piloted by humans, then autonomously controlled by the AI itself, which in the meantime will have a "mouse-like" computing power compared to the lizard-like, typical of the robots of the current assembly lines.


In the downstream phase it will be possible to enjoy the economic and technological advantages of being able to exploit at zero environmental impact the huge resources present in asteroids, making it economically disadvantageous to invest in the extraction of terrestrial resources, whether REE or palladium, platinum, iron, all elements of which many NEOs (Near-Earth Objects) abound. 16 Psyche is an example, having an estimated market value of 10,000 quadrillion dollars, being composed almost entirely of iron and nickel.


3. How much damage do we do to the environment with mining?


Mining adversely affects the environment by inducing loss of biodiversity, soil erosion, and contamination of surface water, groundwater, and soil.

The operations and waste products associated with metal mining and processing are the primary causes of environmental concerns about metal mining. Concerns include: physical damage to the landscape, soil and water contamination, air contamination, and public safety.

Major environmental impacts from mining include:

  • Accessibility and water quality;

  • Air quality;

  • Land disturbance;

  • Waste production;

  • Loss of biodiversity.

Hazardous chemicals such as cyanide, sulfuric acid or chlorine are used to extract resources, harming biodiversity, workers and local people.

Heap Leaching and blasting operations also lead to high levels of cyanide and nitrogen compounds (ammonia, nitrate, nitrite) in water resources. Poor water quality affected by mining is not only unfit for human consumption, but also has devastating effects on water bodies (rivers, lakes) and aquatic life. Surface water quality also adversely affects wildlife.


4. Conclusions


While the advantages that the space economy would bring in terms of economy and eco-sustainability are indisputable, the main gap remains the absence of a legal regulation of this type of operations, being prohibited by international law the exploitation of space for economic purposes. In recent years, however, there has been no shortage of proposals for national legislation (USA and Luxembourg)[1] that also allow private parties to economically exploit space, and companies that collaborate with public space entities through service contracts or following tenders are now a reality.


It would be really necessary to revisit the concept of common heritage that is shared, if not by every country, by the most influential ones in the sector, so as to allow humanity to take the first steps to become a multiplanetary civilization and solve the crisis for resources that already causes a shortage of electronic components and materials.



References

[1] These countries, USA in primis, have promoted the Artemis Agreement (signed also by Italy) whose principle n.8 is referred to the extraction and use of space resources. All this has been possible because of a "flaw" in the 1967 Treaty, which prohibits the claim of celestial bodies only to States, while private individuals are not mentioned. For further reading: Artemis accords, l’estrazione di risorse dai corpi celesti e il diritto internazionale (Parte II) (amistades.info)


Bibliography

  • P.T. Metzger, Space development and space science together, an historic opportunity, SpacePolicy (2016)

  • A.M. Bradshaw, T. Hamacher, Nonregenerative natural resources in a sustainable system of energysupply, ChemSusChem 5.3 (2012) 550-562.

  • G.A. Craig, S. Saydam, A.G. Dempster, Mining off-Earth minerals: a long-term play? J. South. Afr. Ins. Min. Metall. 114.12 (2014) 1039-1047.

  • K. Zacny K, et al., Asteroid mining. In: AIAA Space 2013 Conf. Expo. , San Diego, CA, 2013. Article no. AIAA 2013-5304.

  • G.B. Sanders, Lunar Polar In Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) as a Stepping Stone for Human Exploration, in: Annu. Meet. Lunar Explor. Anal. Group, Laurel, Md., 2013. Abstract no. 7054.

  • Joel Sercel, Asteroid Provided In-situ Supplies(APIS): A Breakthrough to Enablean Affordable NASA Program of Human Exploration and Commercial Space Industrialization, NIAC Phase I Final Report, ICS Associates, Lake View Terrace, CA, 2016.

  • Diritto internazionale dello spazio - Gabriella Catalano Sgrosso, LoGisma editore, 2011.

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