It has been quite a while since the Wild West days where everyone was their own law, and where enforcement was at the point of a gun. Asteroid mining is one place where that life could come back absent some sort of structure to enforce claims, and the law. Lets look at that
The Fun Part
June 6, 2043
Office of Hunter, Loyd and Cram, GEO 1, High Earth Orbit, 25,000km above Indian Ocean
Claim jumping motherfuckers….I should have killed them when I first saw them on my rock.
Calm down Mr Siemans, as your attorney I should warn you that attorney-client privilege doesn’t extend to criminal behavior. So I am quite glad you didn’t kill anyone.
But Jeff, this is the second rock I have lost to the same crew!
Slow down and explain what happened this time
Ok so I was just coming back from my second haul of ice to the Lagrange fuel depot there near the Gateway, and I found another ship on the landing pad.
It was Water4You’s ships. Their latest made in orbit one. Looks really nice…but not when it is on MY mine!
How did you know it was Water4You’s ship
Because it was the same one that took my first mine six months ago
Ah….where was that?
Between here and Mars…a little thing
And you registered it?
No, I didn’t have the money back then
But did you register this second one?
Yea…it being so much bigger meant I would get more scrutiny.
Ok so back to when you saw them on your asteroid, what did you do?
I went down and was immediately stopped by some armed thug who told me to get off their company’s property. I spent about an hour arguing with him, but when my air started to run low I figured I should head back to my ship.
Ok, and what next?
Well when I got back I had an alert on my navigation system saying I was in a restricted area, and that if I didn’t leave immediately I would be considered hostile, and could be targeted by any law enforcement vessel.
And what did you do?
Well I left…I don’t want any trouble with the law, especially because my sister has had a few run ins with the Chinese contingent up here, and they aren’t terribly friendly.
So how did you find me?
My dad has used your firm for all his companies so I came right to you all’s office here at GEO1.
Ahhh yes, that explains why your name is familiar.
Great – so you have heard of my dad….now can we find a way to fuck these guys up? This is the second time I have lost a mine to these guys!
I understand Mr. Siemans, but now we have a case. Your first mine was technically unlicensed with the orbital guard, meaning this is effectively the first ‘real’ mine that you lost. And since we filed a claim on this asteroid, we can now take….oh right….Water4You, to court. And not only will you get your asteroid back, but also damages which, unless I have misread W4Y’s financials, will essentially compensate you for your first mine.
Are you serious Jeff? Do you really think we can get anything from these guys? I mean that crew out there seemed like a bunch of thugs. You are saying they are part of a legit company that we can sue?
Well…the company is legit yes. That crew…not sure. I am sure the company will try to claim that the crew was ‘rogue’, but since it is the same crew both times, and since they were flying W4Y’s newest ship, I think we have a good case that they were sanctioned.
Shit, well that is way better news than I thought I was going to get from you. I just came to you to figure out if you knew anyone who could ‘take care’ of those motherfuckers.
The Real Deal
It has been a while since claim jumpers have been a problem for miners anywhere, but we are likely entering an era when claim jumping on mines is going to be both profitable and possible until a robust law enforcement presence is established in space. But before we get to that part lets explore space mining in more detail than we did a few months back.
Over the past 20 years, scientists have identified over 11,000 near-Earth asteroids (in addition to the near million we know of in the Main Belt). A handful of companies are exploring options to begin prospecting on some of these asteroids in the coming years. Most of these plans involve initially mining ice to be converted into fuel (because refueling in space is way easier than bringing it all up from the ground). After refueling infrastructure is more established, mining will likely start to expand to rare metals, and other minerals for use in on-orbit manufacturing.
Despite the high number of near-Earth asteroids, researchers say the majority of these are not suitable for mining with current (or near current) tech because of the following five factors:
Speed. One of the first considerations when looking at an asteroid to mine is how fast it is going. The faster it is moving, the harder it will be for a spacecraft to match velocity and land. It is basically the difference between jumping on a train slowly pulling out of the station of trying to jump onto a moving bullet train. James Bond may be able to do both, but that doesn’t mean they are both the same difficulty.
Spin. For many of the same reasons as speed, the spin of an asteroid can prevent a landing. But aside from trying to land on a top, the faster an asteroid is spinning the more likely it is to actually disintegrate, making it a less desirable target for mining. No point risking equipment if it is going to be lost after the drill breaks the entire rock up.
Size. Yes I am saying size matters. At least here. Anywhere else – you are on your own. In this case it is because anything smaller than about 3-400 meters across just wont have enough water or ore to make a trip worth it.
Structure. Asteroids are classified by what composes their structure. C-type asteroids are about 20% frozen water (and considered ideal initial targets for space mining operations), M-type are largely metallic, and S-type are stony.
Orbit. At the end of the day, the closer an asteroid is, the easier it is to get to. If you have the four S’s aligned, but the asteroid is far away, then it is probably not a good prospect for your mining operation.
Great but seriously…mining in space?
So interest in space mining has increased recently as Musk, Bezos and others publicly push forward in space. But their efforts to reduce the cost of space travel is doomed without finding materials such as water and minerals that do not have to be rocketed up from Earth.
Goldman Sachs wrote a research note in 2017 stating:
“Space mining could be more realistic than perceived. Water and platinum group metals that are abundant on asteroids are highly disruptive from a technological and economic standpoint. Water is easily converted into rocket fuel, and can even be used unaltered as a propellant. Ultimately being able to stockpile the fuel in LEO [low earth orbit] would be a game changer for how we access space. And platinum is platinum. According to a 2012 Reuters interview with Planetary Resources, a single asteroid the size of a football field could contain $25bn- $50bn worth of platinum.”
That same report suggested that within the next 5-10 years we should expect to see an exponential rise in orbital mining interest from new and established companies.
Goldman was not the only large investment entity which has been taking notice of the potential for orbital mining. Since the middle of the 2010s the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have been investing in ground based infrastructure to launch satellites, and exploring
But Are Claim Jumpers A Problem?
As for ownership, the 1967 United Nations Outer Space Treaty says that no nation can claim ownership of the Moon. However, that doesn’t necessarily prevent private companies from claiming portions of the Moon as their own commercial property, and as of yet there isn’t legal framework for claiming property elsewhere in space.
Since regulation and laws usually take time to catch up to technology and the ‘real’ world, we can probably expect at least a handful of asteroids to already be getting mined before any regulations come out govering that. And realistically until there is a problem (like one company stealing a mine from another), there isn’t likely to be much impetus for lawmakers or regulators to actually do anything.
The moon is a likely to get more attention in the near term as companies look to establish bases there, however with many of the early companies heading for places far away from each other there is the possibility that they will avoid coming into conflict for a while.
Nonetheless, ownership in space is an ethical conundrum that space law experts and ethicists have not solved yet—but it seems we might need to start thinking of a solution soon.
We are going to continue looking at legal grey areas, this time a funner version though….space gambling…and how long it is going to take for a casino to make its way into orbit.
Until then feel free to reach out to me below if you / your organization wants a talk on how you will fit into the future of space; or if you just have a suggestion on what we should be talking about here.