Space mining is getting closer to becoming a reality, and Canada could play a major role
‘This is a future industry that we could own as Canadians,’ says one space mining expert.
November 04, 2023
It’s the stuff of science fiction: Blasting off to the moon or an asteroid, drilling it, mining its resources and bringing some or all of it back to Earth.
But that fiction is getting closer to becoming a reality.
“The idea of extracting resources from asteroids and even our own moon has been around for a number of decades,” said Gordon “Oz” Osinski, a professor and planetary geologist with Western University in London, Ont. “But it’s only kind of coming a bit closer to reality these last few years.”
That’s because, after more than 50 years of focusing on low-Earth orbit in terms of a human presence in space, with astronauts living aboard the International Space Station, things are changing.
In 2025, humans will once again set foot on the moon as part of NASA’s Artemis program, of which an additional 29 countries having signed, including Canada. There will also be a new space station orbiting the moon as part of the program, called the Lunar Gateway, which will also have a Canadian contribution: Canadarm3. The station’s purpose is to eventually serve as a sort of jumping off point, to go to the moon, Mars, and beyond.
And Canada, with its history as one of the top mining countries in the world, could get a piece of the mining action.
WATCH | The Artemis Accords: Space Resources:
“Space mining is definitely going to happen. It is an inevitability, is not a possibility and it’s going to happen in the very near-term,” said Daniel Sax, co-founder and CEO at the Canadian Space Mining Corporation.
“There’s going to be space mining that occurs in the lunar environment within the next 10 years to make water and oxygen and other key consumables for space exploration.”
Sax’s company isn’t the only kid on the space mining block. Over the past decade, several companies have popped up — and many have failed. However, now, with a return to the moon on the horizon, space mining is becoming less of a dream and more of a goal backed by space agencies, including the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).
The space agency is exploring the space applications of mining technologies, with a goal of “in situ resource utilization,” meaning resources extracted from the location to be used in the location, such as water on the moon. So far, two Canadian companies have received research funding from the CSA in terms of mining: the Canadian Space Mining Corporation, and another, Deltion Innovations Ltd.
“There’s talk about sustainable human presence in deep space with a focus on the initial step on the moon, and then further on to Mars and then, as NASA would say, and beyond,” said Christian Lange, executive director of the CSA’s Lunar Exploration Accelerator Program. “And all those sustainable exploration activities rely a lot on in situ resources so that when you get there, you don’t need to bring all your stuff. You will be able to start using resources on the planet or on the planetary body where you go.
“In terms of where Canada is, I think we are more on the initial focus of prospecting — so to really understand what resources exist with a focus on the moon.”
Then there’s the long-term goal of potentially mining asteroids.
On Oct. 13, NASA launched a mission to an asteroid called Psyche. It’s the largest known metal-rich asteroid, worth an estimated $10,000 quadrillion US. While there is no technology in place now to mine it or even bring it close to Earth where it could be mined, that is the dream of many startup space mining companies.
WATCH | NASA launches mission to study metal-rich asteroid:
NASA launches mission to study metal-rich asteroid (2:17)
“When it comes to asteroids, we’re really interested in a group of elements we call the PGEs. Those are the platinum group elements of which one is the element platinum,” said Osinski, who is the principal investigator for Canada’s first lunar rover, which could reach the moon as early as 2026.
“They are getting incredibly rare and difficult to find on Earth. At the same time, we need more and more of these elements because of the green economy. We need PGEs for batteries for solar panels. Many different aspects of the green economy need these PGEs, and I think we will reach a point where it will just become too expensive on Earth to mine them.”
Aside from the technical and financial hurdles that need to be cleared before we get to mining space resources comes a very real one: Who has ownership?
The Outer Space Treaty emerged from the UN’s Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) in 1966, as the United States and the Soviet Union vied for space supremacy. In that, it says that no one nation can own any part of the moon or other other celestial body.
The Artemis Accords arrangement builds on the Outer Space Treaty. But that non-binding agreement is almost 45 years old and doesn’t take into account private industry. So there is still somewhat of a grey area.
“The moon agreement … made a very good improvement over Outer Space Treaty [in] that it allows you to go and explore and appropriate certain things,” said Ram Jakhu, a professor of law at McGill University’s Institute of Air and Space Law.
But, he added, even that agreement is outdated.
“As the technology is being developed, the law has to keep pace with that. So one should not determine what is going to happen 50 years from today on the basis of law today.”
For Sax, he’s optimistic that Canada can take a lead in a burgeoning industry.
“In Canada, it should be thought of as something strategic. In the [Canadian] Minerals and Metals Plan 2019, Canada’s mining strategy document, [Natural Resources Canada] identified it as of something that is strategically, nationally important to the country,” Sax said.
“This is a future industry that we could own as Canadians.”
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