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A Sci-Fi Concept That Should Become Reality: Asteroid Mining Is Essential for the Future of U.S. National Security

For many Americans, it seems difficult to imagine a world in which the United States sources its lithium and cobalt from an asteroid thousands of miles from Earth rather than an underground mine in Argentina or the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Yet, that world is not far off; recent advancements in robotics technology have made it possible for spacecraft to successfully approach distant moving asteroids, latch on, and drill for vital minerals. It is time for the American government, through NASA and related agencies, to invest quickly and heavily in robotic asteroid mining, a strategic venture that will boost access to critical resources, reduce U.S. dependence on unstable or hostile countries, and enable the nation to meet its sustainable-development goals.

There are currently about 30,000 asteroids orbiting the sun in a way that brings them close to Earth, but many more could still be discovered.1 For instance, in 2021, researchers from the Planetary Science Institute published a paper about two newly identified asteroids that were estimated to be 85 percent metal, one of which contained enough iron, nickel, and cobalt to exceed Earth’s reserves of those metals.2 According to Asterank, a database that estimates the expected value of thousands of asteroids based on scientific publications and meteorite data, mining the 10 most cost-effective asteroids would produce a profit of about $1.5 trillion, an enormous boon.3

Although the profit alone might justify space mining efforts, U.S. secure access to key minerals is more important. Asteroids can boast high concentrations of various minerals, including everything from gold, silver, and platinum to iron, nickel, and copper.4 These minerals run through almost everything that powers society, from platinum in microelectronics to gallium in solar panels. Yet they are non-renewable resources, and many studies have suggested humans will run out of several essential elements in the next 100 years.5 The problem will only get worse as the world tries to meet goals in the 2015 Paris Agreement, which the International Energy Agency estimates will quadruple demand for lithium, copper, nickel, cobalt, and rare earth metals in the next 20 years.6 Additionally, asteroid mining avoids the need for traditional in-the-ground methods of mining, which demand excessive water usage for extraction and processing and release toxic chemicals into waterways through waste disposal.

The United States currently relies on imports for more than 50 percent of the minerals it consumes.7 Those imports make the country dependent on other—often non-allied—countries and vulnerable to any shake-ups in the supply chain that may stem from war or global disaster. The DRC, for instance, produces 41 percent of the world’s cobalt and possesses extensive amounts of high-grade copper.8 Unfortunately, the DRC experiences regular violence, conflict, and civil unrest that make it difficult to efficiently source those minerals. Additionally, several multinational mining companies operating in the DRC have been accused of perpetrating human rights abuses that break with international standards on fair pay and working conditions.9 After mining takes place, the minerals are transported to countries such as China, which processes 80 percent of the world’s rare earth metals, for extraction.10 Given the announcement in July 2023 that China would restrict exports of gallium and germanium for reasons of national security, the United States needs to aggressively explore new mineral supply chains decoupled from China.11 Independent access to minerals, secured by asteroid mining, will ensure the United States can produce next-generation technology.

The U.S. government already recognizes the value of metal-rich asteroids. That is why, in October 2023, NASA launched its first spacecraft designed to study a metallic asteroid.12 Plus, NASA’s OSIRIS-Rex temporarily returned to Earth on September 24, 2023 to drop off samples from a near-earth asteroid named Bennu, evidence that NASA can construct the advanced technology to extract minerals from small celestial bodies.13 However, the U.S. government can and should expand beyond exploratory technology and make large-scale asteroid mining a reality.

First, the United States needs to create a government-sponsored fund to support domestic space mining start-ups. In 2018, Japan announced a $940 million fund to support space start-ups, an initiative that has resulted in everything from microsatellite manufacturing to development of an advanced solid-state battery that can survive the frigid temperatures on the Moon.14 Japan is a model not only for nurturing growth in the domestic space industry, but also for sponsoring impressive research and development in robotics. For example, the Space Capable Asteroid Robotic Explorer (Scar-E) is a first-of-its-kind climbing robot with potential asteroid mining applications developed through a partnership between Japan’s Tohoku University and the Asteroid Mining Corporation.15

A U.S. government–sponsored fund will help to solve a large problem: Asteroid mining is too costly for the small experimental companies that make up the nascent space mining industry. The first private companies in the space mining industry went under when they were unable to finance themselves to meet such high development costs.16 U.S. government involvement will provide momentum where very few investors have the patience to support such a long-term undertaking. Plus, it will jumpstart further research and development in an arena that is still in the early stages but could see huge advancements when the right incentives are put in place.

Second, NASA can better optimize its existing budget, although more money from Congress would always be helpful (the agency expects to see its 2024 budget cut by 22 percent from 2023 levels).17 Given the relative density of the commercial space tourism industry, NASA should shift funding from human spaceflight activities (which currently eat 50 percent of the agency’s annual budget) to robotic missions and scientific research (only 30 percent of annual spending).18 NASA can also award more contracts to companies, such as Karman Plus, that are working on excavation technology to allow American companies to effectively compete with the plethora of Chinese space mining start-ups. When NASA awarded nine commercial lunar payload services contracts in November 2018,19 it jump-started lunar transportation businesses, a testament to the value of using contracts to guide the direction of the space industry.

Finally, the United States should use its authority to establish governance structures that can clarify ambiguous problems, minimize conflict, and encourage cooperation in a resource-rich industry. The international legal infrastructure for mineral exploitation in space is practically nonexistent. The United States should work through the United Nations to update the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, the foundation of international space law. Updates to the Outer Space Treaty could include: an international registry of space mining activities, governance surrounding the disposal of space mining debris, and agreed upon mineral rights, possibly informed by the Space Resource Exploration and Utilization Act of 2015. Another important step will involve ensuring that space resources are fairly and effectively distributed, especially considering that experts believe asteroid mining would quickly destroy the terrestrial mineral economy, currently valued at about $660 billion.20 The trillions of dollars flowing in from asteroid mining would disproportionately damage the economies of developing countries, which depend heavily on extractives. The U.S. government can prevent extreme distributions of benefits by sponsoring, and inviting other developed space programs to contribute to, a technology transfer program similar to the one enabled by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

In addition to establishing a legal infrastructure at the international-law level, the United States should adopt domestic guidance for U.S.-based firms. For instance, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) currently administers licenses for launches and re-entries only; Congress could clarify that the authority of the FAA extends to space transit, mining, and other activities. Alternatively, the Committee on Space Research has advocated for a policy that would prevent impact to local ecosystems for Earth return-missions, and the U.S. government should also consider minimizing disruptions by robotic mining efforts to the environment in outer space.21 Regardless, fair and well-thought-out guardrails will make private companies more likely to enter a space that has clear rules of the road.

Although space mining exists currently as only a fledgling industry, substantial investments by other countries promise to make it an integral part of the future. With the right steps, the United States can ensure access to critical minerals, stimulate innovation, and, ultimately, guarantee U.S. prosperity.

Source: CNAS