Into space: On the Starship Enterprise or the Millennium Falcon?

The image and movie show a model of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Public point cloud data was downloaded from the European Space Agency and was built using photogrammetry. Interpretation, colour-coding of surface uncertainty and visualization was carried out by Mike O’Brien using Leapfrog Geo(TM) software.

Author: Mike O’Brien, Senior Principal Consultant, P.Geo., Pr.Sci.Nat.


Despite the difficulties besetting the terrestrial mineral industry, there is a persistent and growing interest in exploiting other bodies in the solar system.

A number of companies are developing plans to exploit minerals, water and hydrocarbons associated with asteroids. As we know from this planet, relevant and flexible legal and regulatory frameworks will be important to allow these ventures to succeed. While initial national efforts were critical to getting mankind into space during the Cold War, commercial enterprises are taking on an increasing level of the total effort to expand from our lonely planet. SpaceX and Blue Origin appear to be making headway with reducing the cost of getting hardware and tools into orbit, the threshold of space ventures.

History and process of space ventures

This process of increasing commercial effort and gradually is analogous to developments during the western world’s expansion into the New World during the Age of Discovery. Hopefully, it will not include slavery and rampant destruction of extra-terrestrial life forms. Another parallel is the much more recent development of cyberspace, initiated by government including defence and later expanded by a deluge of private enterprise money (and debt). Based on these examples, it is likely that there will be much chaos as a by-product of short-term rent seeking, before order is restored for long-term benefit of humanity.

The history of previous human endeavours suggests that when resource exploitation from non-Earth sources begins in earnest, the regulatory framework will be incomplete and at the least convenient moment a rush for the ‘high ground’ will commence. Bemused astronauts or remote-piloted, ponderous, national space agency vehicles (as per ‘Starship Enterprise’) will be suddenly swarmed by entrepreneurs brandishing light sabres and driving do-it-yourself ‘Millenium Falcon’. Exploitation of space materials is likely to be for materials to be used extra terrestrially, so a positive feedback on growth of the industry is likely.

Governmental legal frameworks

Some governments and other organizations are taking steps to provide some sort of legal framework. Space mining may still seem like a distant prospect, but unless the existing mineral industry is involved in the development of such frameworks, there is a risk that humanity will again have to relive history and suffer unnecessary risks.

United States congress Bill H. R. 1508 provides a pair of definitions;

‘‘(1) SPACE RESOURCE.—The term ‘space re- source’ means a natural resource of any kind found in situ in outer space.

‘‘(2) ASTEROID RESOURCE.—The term ‘asteroid resource’ means a space resource found on or within a single asteroid. “

These definitions are extremely broad, compared to the existing terrestrial mineral or oil and gas resource or reserve definitions.

A commonly referred global (or galactic?) acceptable mineral resource code is the CRIRSCO template, developed and maintained under the auspices of the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM). Clause 21 begins , “A Mineral Resource is a concentration or occurrence of solid material of economic interest in or on the Earth’s crust …. “.

Expansion to extraterrestrial objects

It is time to expand this to deal with extraterrestrial objects. Perhaps an amendment to “A Mineral Resource is a concentration or occurrence of solid material of economic interest in or on the crust of a Planet or a Small Solar System Body …. “ will include anything of potential within the Solar System at least. The International Astronomical Union (IAU) has defined terms ‘Planet’ and “Small Solar System Bodies’, which excludes man-made objects. It may be useful to try to define accumulations of ‘space junk’ that are analogous to tailings or waste heaps in the terrestrial context.

Asteroid-sized Luxembourg (http://www.gouvernement.lu/5653386) is interested in becoming the European hub of space resource exploitation through spaceresources.lu initiative.

Space mining

Any efforts at developing extraterrestrial codes of conduct or other forms of regulation will first have to tackle the thorny issue of earth-based national chauvinism. Recent developments in cyberspace and national sovereignty being exercised over parts of the world wide web suggest that real space will also be a jurisdictional challenge. While the US is likely to have ‘first to market’ extraterrestrial mining systems, the intent of Bill H. R. 1508To promote the development of a United States commercial space resource exploration and utilization industry and to increase the exploration and utilization of resources in outer space” is likely to be viewed as aggressive by other nations. At risk of conjuring paranoid visions of world government space resources should be a subject for ‘Earth consensus’. Unless industry and individual technologists take an interest, there is a danger that governments and global organizations will neglect the views and interests of commercial entities and the terrestrial mineral.

The concepts of space mining, provided by companies such as Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries, suggest that prospecting will occur using spectral imaging to identify targets. However, assumptions that scans of the surface of asteroids will provide a representative view of the contents are not necessarily true, as complex histories of collision and accretion may have led to significant differentiation which may lead to the same sort of unwelcome surprises that Earth has frequently provided mineral explorationists. Any space resource targets are likely to be composite in nature with water and hydrocarbons as well as metals providing value. Selective mining and blending are likely to be as important in space resource extraction as on our home planet. Mining engineers and geologists will be necessary as well as remote sensing experts and aerospace engineers. Tools such as three dimensional modeling systems will be necessary, with the added complication of time dependent factors such as rotational movement and the need to intercept targets at optimal positions in the orbits. Multivariate optimization systems will keep technologists busy for a while.

At the very least, site visits will be spectacular. But will they still be mandatory for QP’s?


Footnote:  The image and movie show a model of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Public point cloud data was downloaded from the European Space Agency and was built using photogrammetry. Interpretation, colour-coding of surface uncertainty and visualization was carried out by Mike O’Brien using Leapfrog Geo™ software.


About Mike O’Brien

Senior Principal Consultant, P.Geo., Pr.Sci.Nat. ARANZ Geo Limited – Expert Services (formerly QG Consulting)

For three decades Mike has been making a difference to Mineral Resources and mines. On the technical front, he has extensive experience in Mineral Resource estimation and geological modelling. He has managed technical teams to achieve results in mining companies and in consultancies. While the majority of his experience has been in gold deposits, he has expertise in the uranium, base metals and multi-product environment. A qualified geologist and geostatistician, he has been a team member and reviewer of due diligence and feasibility exercises in South Africa, Brazil, Ghana, Namibia, DRC, Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Colombia, Peru and the United States. Specialties: Mineral Resource estimation, geostatistics, Mineral Resource classification, Mineral Resource reporting codes, SAMREC, JORC.

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