Mining’s Final Frontier? New Joint Venture Seeks Minerals in Outer Space

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By Christopher Hopkins, The Saint Consulting Group

Growing up, we were entertained by images of Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock seeking the ‘final frontier,’ battling alien beings (and occasionally other earthlings) over some far-away territory. Evil aliens would sometimes invade earth, seeking our precious natural resources.

And when humans ultimately ended up traveling to the moon, what was the one thing we came back with? Rocks!

In the 21st Century, space adventure does not seem so farfetched anymore. With the start of the Space Shuttle program in the 1980’s, space travel became far more common and far easier and, under the disclaimer that everything is relative, affordable.

Recently a partnership has been formed between a company called Planetary Resources and Sir Richard Branson’s ‘Virgin Galactic’ with the goal of mining in space. Planetary Resources, based in Bellevue, WA, describes itself  as “establishing a new paradigm for resource discovery and utilization that will bring the solar system into humanity’s sphere of influence. Our technical principals boast extensive experience in all phases of robotic space missions, from designing and building, to testing and operating. We are visionaries, pioneers, rocket scientists and industry leaders with proven track records on—and off—this planet.”

The company’s leaders cite the “limitless” number of asteroids in space — and particularly the nearly 1,500 that circle the Earth in as close proximity as the moon — as an untapped resource for every element from “water to platinum.”  The firm’s Board of Advisors includes a former NASA astronaut, the chairman of the Gulf Alliance Corporation, and the Academy Award winning director James Cameron.

Virgin Galactic, the brainchild of Branson and a subsidiary of his Virgin Group, has developed a fleet of two test vehicles, which are undergoing test flights in the Mojave Desert in California.

This preliminary exploration has already triggered arguments about who actually owns the mineral rights in space. A Space Resources Roundtable assembled last month brought experts together to discuss legal issues that will be faced surrounding the private development of outer space. The symposium was conducted by  Planetary and Terrestrial Mining Sciences, the Colorado School of Mines, and the Lunar and Planetary Institute.

One lawsuit has already been filed. Gregory Nemitz, CEO of Orbital Development of Twin Falls, Idaho, sued NASA in 2000 over property rights of asteroid 433 Eros. Mr. Nemitz’s argument was based on a section of common law that states that a claim of ownership can be made before possession is actually taken. The federal court dismissed the case without a hearing.

What Mr. Nemitz did accomplish was to begin a dialogue on mineral resource exploration in space — and the science has progressed since his initial suit.

The ‘final frontier’ is no longer limited to Star Trek or a Jules Verne science fiction novel. Regulations and investment are currently being developed in anticipation of space mineral exploration in our lifetime.

Christopher Hopkins is senior vice president for aggregates and mining for The Saint Consulting Group, email hopkins@tscg.biz

 

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