Off-world, on Earth’s moon and asteroids, lies a wealth of resources. For a long time, the ability to harvest these resources — which potentially includes elements vital for fuel and renewable sources of energy — was the purview of science fiction, or at least the movie Armageddon.
(The movie’s miners turned protagonists were using their skills to try and blow up a Texas-sized asteroid and save the world. But in theory their efforts could have pioneered a method for extracting rocks while in space.)
However, a future where humans mine other celestial bodies may not be that far off, proponents told The Weather Network. There would be environmental benefits to the approach and Canada is well-positioned to be an active part of this potential future, they added. That said, others are more skeptical about this so-called “space mining.”
In broad strokes, space mining could be an environmental boon in two ways. The first involves developing the ability to gather resources on Earth’s moon. Namely, these resources are helium-3, which is rare on Earth, to power nuclear fusion reactors; and moon dust, which contains ice particles.
Various researchers from around the world are seeking ways to split this ice into hydrogen and oxygen, the former being a potential source of fuel for spacecraft. Daniel Sax is the founder and CEO of the Canadian Space Mining Corporation (CSMC), one of a few Canadian companies in the field.
According to Sax, the future of space exploration will likely require a great deal of fuel and water. Take, for instance, the NASA-led Artemis Mission, which aims to establish a human presence on the moon, among other things.
Hauling water and fuel into space from Earth is difficult, considering they add weight to a spacecraft already subject to the drag from Earth’s atmosphere, and the planet’s gravity. The ability to collect and process moon dust in space could, as such, reduce the amount of fuel burned and greenhouse gasses emitted by enabling a spacecraft to access water and refuel in space — which isn’t normally done currently — with resources made there.
“Right now, it’s really inefficient to get to space and to stay there,” Sax told The Weather Network.
NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter captured this view on March 3, 2023. Malapert Massif, a lunar mountain and Artemis 3 candidate landing region, is shown at lower left. The mountain's highest point looms more than 16,400 feet (5000 meters) above its base. (NASA)
2023: A Space Ore-dyssey
It’s further in the future, but space mining could also be used to gather the critical minerals needed for renewable sources of energy, then ship them down to Earth. According to Sax, this means fewer emissions from terrestrial mining and fewer natural habitats degraded.
This could mean waiting for asteroids to hit the moon or by sending out a probe to grab a part of an asteroid and then having astronauts nearby collect it to return it to Earth. This latter idea was proposed, researched but ultimately canceled by NASA in 2017. Some desirable elements, like europium — which could be used in some types of solar panels — could also be mined on the moon.
“If you start looking at critical minerals and the energy transition, then you very quickly see that unless we start either recycling much more or consuming much less, the physical Earth does not have the capacity to provide us with all of the metals and minerals that we will need,” Elizabeth Steyn, a faculty member at the Western Institute for Earth and Space Exploration at Western University, told The Weather Network.
She added that bringing asteroids, or parts of them, back down to Earth for processing poses some technical challenges, including finding a way to wrangle it to solid ground. Right now, this approach is farther in the future, she said, but in theory, the concept of a space elevator (almost exactly what it sounds like) could make the process easier.
In space, no one can hear you ‘eh’
According to Sax, Canada is well-positioned to be an important part of space mining. This is because of the country’s wealth of experience in mining (on Earth) and in creating robotics that go off into space, such as the Canadarm.
Meanwhile, according to Steyn, the country’s regulations haven’t really caught up with the field’s technology. As it stands, only a few countries — including the United States, Japan and Luxembourg — have dedicated policies allowing for resource extraction in space.
That said, groups like the CMSC have been pushing for Canada to update its regulations. Plus the Canadian Space Agency consulted residents on topics such as resource extraction in space this year. “So we’re not quite there, but we may be moving in that direction,” Steyn said.
In this image, published by NASA in 2018, the view from NASA’s Dawn mission is seen. It shows where ice has been detected in the northern wall of Ceres’ Juling Crater, which is in almost permanent shadow. (NASA)
However, it’s unclear how each country’s policies in this area would interact with international agreements, such as the UN’s Outer Space Treaty, which 113 parties have signed since it was introduced in 1967. In short, signatory nations agreed to not start wars in space and that no one country could claim celestial bodies like the moon. More recently, the non-binding Artemis Accords, which 27 nations signed so far, state that extracting resources from space doesn’t necessarily breach the Outer Space Treaty.
A long-ish time from now, in a galaxy really, really close…
However, not everyone is as enthusiastic about the future of space mining, and have doubts about the potential environmental boons it could offer. According to Katherine Moore, senior lecturer in critical and green technology metals at Exeter University, harvesting critical elements from asteroids would be tricky because there would need to be large amounts of them brought back to Earth in order for the effort to be economically viable.
Watch below: How solar panels in space can beam energy back to Earth
Moore added that, primarily, the main elements discussed as possibilities here are platinum group metals (PGMs), a group of six elements that sit close to the group’s namesake on the periodic table, and often appear together in mineral deposits.
Platinum could find use in some types of batteries, but the International Energy Agency considers PGMs “low need” materials for many energy transition technologies except for hydrogen power, for which they are “high need.” As such, mining asteroids for this class of element might not help reduce terrestrial mining, Moore said.
Steyn added that the technologies and policies needed to extract resources in outer space might not come soon enough to be beneficial to the environment. Beyond policy debates at an international level, the technology needed to create hydrogen fuel from water crystals on the moon could still be a ways off. Further, the need for countries around the globe to decarbonize and invest in ways to limit their greenhouse gas emissions could mean less support for mining off-planet.
“I think the bottom line is that all of these things are technologically possible,” Moore told The Weather Network. “But whether they are economically and environmentally viable in a meaningful timeframe, is very open to question.”
Thumbnail image: Seen in space in 2001, Canadarm2, launched aboard STS-100, is installed on the International Space Station. Here, Canadian Space Agency astronaut Chris Hadfield stands on one Canadian-built robot arm while working with Canadarm2. (NASA)