Kathryn Hadler (ESRIC): “The use of space resources is a future-facing topic”

Writer Samira Joineau
interview kathryn hadler esric

Space resources refer to the various natural resources – minerals, gasses or metals – that are available in outer space (planets, natural satellites, asteroids, etc.). As research has shown so far, this type of resource has the potential to provide invaluable support for further human space exploration. 

To dive futher into the subject, ESRIC director Kathryn Hadler and ESRIC Start-up Support Programme Lead Lari Cujko have agreed to explain the utilization of space resources, as well as their importance in helping us address current Earth challenges.

Over the past few years, the space sector has undergone – and is still undergoing – considerable advances. These help notably in space resources collection and utilization. Could you tell us more about space resources and their potential use?

KH: Most often, the topic that comes to mind when we talk about space resources is the mining of asteroids, looking for metals and other resources that can be brought back to use on Earth. However, what we at ESRIC are focused on initially is In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU). This term is used to describe the extraction and use of space resources in space, for example to enable space exploration, and to establish a more long-term human presence in space. To do this, we focus on some critical requirements, such as oxygen and water for life support and propellant, manufacturing and construction of habitation and infrastructure, harnessing and supplying energy. The research that is done in this field is truly cross-discipline, which is very exciting. We need to understand what resources are available and develop technologies to move, extract, construct, store and supply useful products. Doing this in the harsh environment of the Moon, Mars and beyond is the big challenge.

It is said that space resources circularity could address both space operations’ sustainability and Earth challenges – notably climate change; so how does this circularity work? 

KH: One line of thinking that is frequently used with respect to space resources is that resources from space could be used to reduce the environmental impact of mining on Earth, so we outsource our industrial activities (e.g. manufacturing) off-Earth. This is interesting, but I think one of the most exciting opportunities is the transfer of concepts and technologies relating to circularity from space resources to terrestrial resources. We can use space resources operations to demonstrate how resources can be used in a zero-waste way that minimizes environmental impact. The cost of sending equipment to space is significant, therefore we must develop ways to maximise efficiency and minimise launch mass. For example, at ESRIC, we are currently exploring ways to use the waste products from the production of oxygen from the lunar soil. On top of that, we have active research projects in the characterization of lunar resources using remote sensing data, beneficiation of lunar soil and water purification. We address research topics across the space resources value chain, and we aim to develop end-to-end processes, built on the foundations of sustainability and responsible use.

As understood, connecting space and Earth is not such an absurd idea, in the sense that both can complement one another. How will space resources’ role evolve in the near future? 

KH: There are important potential synergies between Earth and Space of course. Learning how to thrive on the Lunar surface, and developing technologies that can function in harsh, remote and resource scarce environments addresses challenges that we face on Earth. Ideas around living in resource-efficient ways in space can provide new concepts for our lives on Earth. The use of space resources is a future-facing topic, but with application today for all of us who stay on Earth. We might be one day a multiplanetary species, but we need to learn the lessons of the past and protect the environments we pass through. 

The economic aspect cannot be dodged though. Although they are crucial, space investments – either private or public – are rather limited, probably due to a lack of engagement, trustworthiness or simply consideration. How to increase stakeholders’ endeavor and interest? How to convince them? 

LC: Historically, developments in this field were done by public institutions such as national space agencies. However, the goal is to create and develop an ecosystem where companies of various sizes can thrive. For example, the Luxembourg government and Luxembourg Space Agency (LSA) have already put in place many initiatives that put Luxembourg in a competitive position in the field of space resources. In fact, in our field, Luxembourg is widely known as being one of the most attractive places to set up a space resources company. One of the pillars our work at ESRIC is based on is commercialization and finding ways to support the next generation of space entrepreneurs, create links with industry and foster collaboration. Space endeavors are not possible outside a truly collaborative environment, where start-ups can develop their technical understanding, foster partnerships and contribute to a market consolidated around space resources utilization.