The New Space Race Is Heating Up: Asteroid Mining, Reusable Rockets, and Water on Mars
Entrepreneurial space is looking up, way up. It's almost time to start drinking Tang again…
This post is about three exciting developments and what they mean:
- The Asteroid Resource Law: President signs Asteroid Resource Law
- Bezos vs. Musk: Race for reusable spaceships
- Finding Water on Mars: We found water! Now what?
New Asteroid Resource Law Signed by POTUS
After nearly three years of work, President Obama just signed into law a piece of legislation that allows for private ownership of asteroids and space resources.
Called the "Space Resource Exploration and Utilization Act of 2015," the POTUS signed it into law as Title IV of H.R.2262.
Let me explain.
Over the last 15 years, we've discovered a large population of asteroids that come very close to the Earth — I call them the "Manhattan Islands" of space.
They are resource-rich, composed of materials that we find extremely valuable: fuels (hydrogen and oxygen), construction materials (nickel, iron, and cobalt), and platinum group metals (platinum, palladium, osmium, iridium) for strategic uses (like electronics).
Most of the large 250 meter to 1 kilometer rocks are worth trillions of dollars, and as such, they represent some of the most valuable real estate in our solar system. Even better, most of them are energetically easier to reach than the surface of the Moon.
This piece of legislation describes how a private company can mine, own and sell materials taken off asteroids.
Let the next "gold rush" begin.
Musk vs. Bezos: Private Reusable Spaceships
You might have seen the headlines that read, "Jeff Bezos beats Elon Musk in space race to create reusable rocket."
What is this all about?
Building reusable rockets is really the key to low-cost space travel and therefore opening the space frontier.
On November 23rd, the day before Thanksgiving 2015, Jeff Bezos' company Blue Origin pulled it off — they launched their New Shepard rocket to 329,839 feet (officially space, which is defined as 328,000 feet or 100 km), and it landed vertically back on Earth, with the ability to refuel and launch again.
Massive congrats to the whole Blue Origin team!!
The flight attracted a lot of media attention.
But while the news media attempted to create a "Bezos vs. Musk" space race, they missed a few critical points:
- SpaceX had already demonstrated reusable vertical powered rocket landings years earlier with the Grasshopper “test vehicle” (as had SpaceShipOne with horizontal landings).
- And, while New Shepard returned from 100 km altitude, it was only a suborbital vehicle (like SpaceShipOne) reaching a maximum velocity of Mach 3. This is in stark contrast to SpaceX’s Falcon-9 first stage return from near orbital velocities (Mach 3 vs. Mach 30).
Putting the media frenzy aside, what is most significant here is the growing commitment of private capital by billionaires like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Paul Allen, Richard Branson and others in their attempt to open the space frontier.
Finally the future of space exploration and commercialization is no longer solely in the hands of a political process.
Water on Mars… Life on Mars… Humans on Mars
Recently NASA announced that their "Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has provided the strongest evidence yet that liquid water flows intermittently on present-day Mars."
Using an imaging spectrometer on the MRO, NASA identified hydrated minerals with patterns unique to flowing water.
Based on what we know about living organisms, you need to have water to have life.
In my opinion, our next Mars mission, scheduled to land on Mars in 2020, will discover that life exists there now.
The Mars 2020 Rover is a car-sized (10 x 9 x 7 foot) vehicle whose primary mission is to search for habitability and signs of life.
But this is just the beginning of a much larger initiative around the Red Planet.
Elon Musk's primary stated purpose in creating SpaceX is to help colonize Mars, to "make humanity a multi-planetary species."
More specifically, two years ago he announced more concrete objectives to provide a roundtrip price of $500,000 per person to Mars within the next 20 years (actually, he said 15 years, but let's cut him some slack).
An Exciting Time to Be Alive
Finally, while the race for asteroids, reusable rockets, and Mars is heating up, yet another race, the $30 Million Google Lunar XPRIZE, is about to take another leap forward. Stand by for news next week!
We are living during an age of incredible progress, where ideas once considered science fiction are now becoming science fact.
The rate of this progress is accelerating. With growing access to large sums of private risk capital, and powerful exponential technologies, there is little that we can't try.
We live during the most exciting time ever in human history.
Image Credit: SpaceX
Can You Own Part of an Asteroid? How Asteroid Mining Is Changing Space Law
Coal miners mine coal; diamond miners mine diamonds; gold miners mine gold; space miners (will) mine space—and anything in it that has precious metals or compounds that can be whisked into rocket fuel. But, just like the first three kinds of "resource extraction," the celestial kind will face more than a few philosophical, financial, and regulatory complications.
On November 24, President Obama signed the “US Commercial Space Law Competitiveness Act” into law. Among other things (like that the government should not pester SpaceX), it states that any US citizen who takes a chip off an old block of asteroid then owns that chip.
The law also applies to other celestial bodies blessed with “resources,” like the Moon and every other planet and lower-case moon because “resources” is a vague word. The US citizen—or, more likely, a group of citizens who are part of a company, like Planetary Resources, Inc., or Deep Space Industries—can then “possess, own, transport, use, [or] sell” the resource.
The leaders of the two asteroid-mining frontrunners, who hope to extract things like precious metals and water from space rocks, spoke excitedly of the development.
“This is the single greatest recognition of property rights in history,” said Eric Anderson, the co-founder and co-chairman of Planetary Resources, Inc., (although some would argue with that). “This legislation establishes the same supportive framework that created the great economies of history, and will encourage the sustained development of space.”
Rick Tumlinson, chair of Deep Space Industries, said, “In the future humanity will look back at this bill being passed as one of the hallmarks of the opening of space to the people. Even while surrounded by so much bad news, in the long view of history, it is this sort of positive action that changes civilization, and while much else will not be remembered, the time when we began to unlock the wealth of the solar system for the people of Earth will be seen as a turning point.”
And their joyousness makes sense: Without this law, they wouldn’t make money if they ventured to a space rock and mined its titanium. They wouldn’t own that metal, so they couldn’t sell it. Now they can. And that’s key if this new breed of space business is going to make it.
Both companies primarily plan to use their space resources to build more space stuff, like habitats for future astronauts, solar-power arrays, and rocket fuel. They hope to create a solar system in which they can sell the parts to make (or in the case of Deep Space Industries, ready-made) off-Earth hotels, orbital research stations, and deep-space rockets—from right in space. Some inside the industry speculate it’s a “trillion-dollar market.”
But whether that market will materialize—and whether it’s actually legal, even with this law—remains an open question. The market can’t materialize until the technological capability is there, but the capability doesn’t have its primary income stream without the market.
That’s part of why this new act is important to companies like Deep Space and Planetary Resources. Before, their ability to own concrete chunks of space was unclear, so an investor couldn’t be certain they would profit from selling resources. Now, at least if they believe the market will exist once the capability does, they can invest and not lie awake suffering legal anxiety.
But while this is a first step, it isn’t the end of the road.
The new US law is a first step, but exactly who can own what in space still isn't totally clear.
The international Outer Space Treaty, made in 1967, prohibits any nation from claiming “sovereign territory” in space. And, when the president signed the bill, he clarified that a given asteroid can never be your asteroid—a piece of it can be your piece, if you remove that piece from the larger rock and if that piece counts as a “resource.”
In other words, you can’t own an asteroid: That would be illegal according to both the new and old laws—but you can own a valuable part of one, once it’s not part of the asteroid. It’s a little confusing (and perhaps outright contradictory). And the international community doesn’t necessarily see the law as fair: Right now, US citizens are the only people allowed to do the owning, while the previous agreement about space property ruled across the globe.
Further, it isn’t clear how the economics of all this will work out yet either. And if mining companies sell prefab orbital colonies to other companies, there’s no guarantee that wealth will trickle down to the non-executive citizens of Earth.
In the long run, though, mining in, building in, and living in space will change life on Earth (even if it doesn’t make the average person richer), because our society will be split between those on solid ground and those floating in a vacuum. Which is pretty cool.
And the way to accomplish that is likely through private industry—or at least industry-government collaboration—because for-profit companies move faster, take more risks, and don’t depend on allocations from federal agencies. If they can prove they can make money by doing X, they will probably get to do X.
The most-cited timeline estimate comes from Planetary Resources, who say they’re a decade away from truly chipping away at those blocks. Both major companies—and Moon Express, which plans to mine our holey satellite—will prospect before harvesting. And that will take a while.
While we wait for them to build resource-sniffing spacecraft, the US should take the lead in encouraging international discussion and consensus. Space doesn’t belong to anyone—and it shouldn’t. But maybe we can find a way for pieces of it to belong to all of us.
- Sarah Scoles is a science writer based in Berkeley, California, who is fascinated by the intersection of science, space, tech, and culture.