The concept is not new. In the 1960s and 70s, NASA sent several missions to the Moon to study the potential for lunar resource utilization. The idea was to use the resources found on the Moon, such as water and helium-3, to support space exploration and even create a lunar colony.
To be clear, space resources refer to the materials and substances that can be found on celestial bodies such as the Moon, Mars, and asteroids. These material resources include water, minerals, metals, and gasses; and have the potential to transform the future of human space exploration and contribute to solving some of the biggest challenges facing our planet today.
Note that space resources also encompass non-material assets, such orbital locations or abundant sunlight which enable satellites to provide services to Earth. Considering that satellite-based telecommunications – on top of global positioning systems – have clearly grown indispensable infrastructure, it is now time to explore how mining space for materials can help boost space exploration – and probably more.
“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.” – Kathryn Hadler, Director (ESRIC)
The potential uses of material space resources have expanded much beyond just supporting space exploration; it is indeed vast and varied. These resources have the potential to contribute to solving some of the biggest challenges facing our planet, including climate change, resource depletion, and energy security.
Water, for example, can be used to create rocket fuel, sustain human life, and support future space settlements. Metals such as platinum and palladium, which are rare on Earth, can be mined from asteroids and used in various industrial applications. Helium-3, which is abundant on the Moon, can be used as a fuel for nuclear fusion, a clean and virtually limitless energy source.
The utilization of space resources can also help address some of the Earth’s most pressing challenges, such as climate change. For instance, the development of a space-based solar power system could provide a clean, renewable source of energy that does not depend on weather patterns or fossil fuels. Also, the production of space-based infrastructure and products can reduce the environmental impact of Earth-based manufacturing and reduce the exploitation of finite resources.
Besides, space mining can also turn out to be essential to crew exploration missions to Mars. On top of the far distance, the relatively high gravity of the latter can make it difficult – not to say impossible – to both extract and export minerals or other materials back to Earth. They will instead serve to instantly provide materials to supply exploration missions, refuel spacecraft, and enable settlement.
“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 maximize efficiency and minimize launch mass.” – Kathryn Hadler
As space exploration evolves, the utilization of space resources is expected to become increasingly important. The cost of space travel and the establishment of permanent settlements on other planets will notably depend on the availability of local resources. In the long-term, space resources may also be used to support the expansion of human civilization beyond Earth, as we explore and settle other planets and moons.
There are nevertheless challenges and risks associated with the use of space resources. One key issue is the potential for conflict over ownership and access to these resources. International treaties and agreements, similarly to the UN Outer Space Treaty, will need to be developed to ensure equitable and sustainable management of space resources at international scale.
There are also the technological and financial barriers to extracting and utilizing space resources. Significant investments in research and development will be necessary to develop the relevant technologies and infrastructure, and to make space resource utilization economically viable. Despite these challenges, the potential benefits of space resource utilization are too significant to ignore.
In this sense – as well as to partially address these challenges – ESA, LSA, and the Luxembourg Institute of Science & Technology (LIST) have jointly launched the European Space Resources Innovation Centre (ESRIC) back in 2020. The idea here was to further European ambitions in the space resources field.
Concretely, this center aims to support European space resource activities in four areas: Research & Development (R&D), Knowledge, Community, and Business. Besides, ESRIC also has the ambition to develop new business opportunities through a Startup Support Program.
Overall, it makes clear that the exploitation of space resources does offer new opportunities for sustainable development, scientific discovery, and economic growth, while also contributing to the mitigation of global challenges like climate change. As we continue to explore and settle the cosmos, space resources will undoubtedly play an increasingly important role in our future.