Experts warn that a brewing war to build a mining base in space would be likely to see China and Russia combining forces to keep the US increasingly seeking to monitor extra-terrestrial trade at bay.
The Trump administration took an aggressive interest in space, declaring that by 2024 America would return astronauts to the moon and defining the Space Force as the US military’s newest branch. It also proposed the Artemis Accords, the global legal structure for mining on the moon, to enable people to exploit the Earth’s natural satellite and other celestial bodies for commercial purposes.
Instead of “global commons,” the order classified outer space as a “legally and physically unique domain of human activity,” opening the way for the moon to be mined without some kind of international treaty. The Artemis Accords were signed in October by Australia, Canada, England, Japan, Luxembourg, Italy and the United Emirates, spearheaded by the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
“Unfortunately, by failing to engage Russia or China as potential partners, the Trump Administration exacerbated a national security threat and risked the economic opportunity it hoped to secure in outer space,” says Elya Taichman, former legislative director for then-Republican Michelle Lujan Grisham.
“Instead, out of fear and necessity, the Artemis Accords have driven China and Russia towards increased cooperation in space,” he writes.
The first to speak out was Russia’s space agency Roscosmos, which compared the strategy to colonialism.
“Sergey Saveliev, deputy general director for international cooperation of Roscosmos, said at the time, “There have already been examples in history where one country wanted to start occupying territories in its interest. Everyone remembers what came of it.
A different path was chosen by China, which made history in 2019 by being the first country to land a probe on the far side of the Moon. Beijing has been approaching Russia to jointly develop a lunar research base since the Artemis Accords were first announced.
President Xi Jinping also made sure that China raised its flag on the Moon in December 2020, more than fifty years after the lunar surface was reached by the US.
The Wild West Next?
Historically, China has been removed in space from the US-led international order. It is not a participant in the International Space Station (ISS) program, and since 2011, NASA’s ability to collaborate with it in space has been limited by US legislative provisions.
Economic experts Anne-Marie Slaughter and Emily Lawrence say: “America and China should cooperate in space.” “If the US succeeded in coordinating space policy with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, it can now find a way to cooperate with China,” they say.
From 2009 to 2011, Slaughter, a former director of policy planning in the US State Department, believes that the team of President Joe Biden should distance themselves from Trump’s agreements and instead follow a new path within the UN Outer Space Peaceful Uses Committee.
The job is going to be difficult, they say, but a necessary one. “The moon could become the next Wild West without an international framework which includes all major spacefaring countries.”
The race is underway. It’s been some time; NASA has laid out a $28 billion proposal to launch in 2021 an unmanned moon mission, followed in 2023 by a crewed moon flyby, and in 2024 by a lunar landing.
Similar to the ISS, NASA plans to create a permanent moon-orbiting base called the Gateway. The agency hopes to create a base on the lunar surface from there, where it can mine the materials needed for the first astronauts to travel to Mars.
In recent years, Russia has explored proposals to return to the moon, possibly travelling deeper into outer space.
In 2018, Roscosmos announced plans to build a long-term moon base over the next two decades, while President Vladimir Putin vowed to launch a ‘very early’ mission to Mars.
Not the first or the only nations to climb on board the lunar mining train are the US, Russia and China.
Luxembourg, one of the first countries to focus on the prospect of mining celestial bodies, formed a Space Agency (LSA) in 2018 to boost the exploration and commercial use of Near Earth Object resources.
Unlike NASA, research or launches are not carried out by the LSA. Its goal is to speed up cooperation between the space sector’s economic project leaders, investors and other stakeholders.
In November, the tiny European nation announced plans to establish a European Space Resources Innovation Centre (ESRIC) to lay the groundwork for extra-terrestrial resource exploitation.
A program to start extracting minerals from the Moon by 2025 is also being funded by Luxembourg.
The mission, operated by the European Space Agency in collaboration with ArianeGroup, aims to harvest trillions of dollars worth of waste-free nuclear energy.
Market of trillions of dollars
Thoughts about harvesting Helium-3 from the Earth’s natural satellite have also floated from both China and India. In the 21st century, Beijing has landed on the moon twice once, with further missions to come.
Most projects in Canada have come from the private sector. One of the most notable was the collaboration between Northern Ontario-based Deltion Innovations and Moon Express, the first American private space exploration corporation to be given government approval to fly outside the orbit of Earth.
In the works, space projects include proposals to mine asteroids, monitor space debris, construct the first human settlement on Mars, and the own proposal of billionaire Elon Musk for an unmanned red planet flight.
Asteroids are riddled with iron ore, nickel and precious metals at far higher quantities than those found on Earth, making up a market estimated at trillions, geologists, as well as emerging firms, such as the US-based Planetary Resources, a company leading the space mining industry, claim.
A metallic asteroid 140 miles wide and worth an estimated $10,000 billion made its closest approach to our world on December 5, 2020.
“The reality of mining asteroids is closer than ever before, with NASA and other companies investing in and developing nuclear power for use in space travel and colonization,” says Bob Goldstein, CEO of US Nuclear Corp.
US Nuclear and Magneto-Inertial Fusion Technologies (MIFTI) claim they are just a few years away from creating the first fusion power generator in the world with proven active fusion energy experiments under their belt.
Fusion power releases up to four times more energy than fission and uses light, low-cost, safe, and sustainable fuel.
In just as little as seven months, a spacecraft with fusion-powered propulsion systems could hit the asteroid belt. It could be strong enough, according to Goldstein, to move the asteroid to an Earth orbit where extracting and transporting these valuable resources to Earth will be far more effective.