We are uniquely positioned to be space mining pioneers.
In late October last year, Christopher Pyne, Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science, announced that the Space Activities Act 1998 would be reviewed to ensure it reflects the modern world's position on space mining, resources rights, and management of the space environment, such as space debris. He appointed an international space law expert and Professor at Western Sydney Uni, Steven Freeland, to conduct the review.
“We must ensure Australia’s civil space regulation effectively stimulates innovation and investment in this growing industry sector," said Pyne.
Since the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957, space mining and exploration have been very real and present issues. Just a decade after that first foray, in 1967, the United Nations Outer Space Treaty was signed. It addressed a variety of issues concerning the right of all nations to access space for scientific purposes, and prohibiting the appropriation of space by any one nation.
However, things have changed. It is no longer countries that are leading the charge, but corporations. Just last year, the United States announced new legislation, the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act. The fundamental purpose of the Act is to provide US companies with the right to profit from resources they gain from space mining - essentially, they gain the right to own things in space. This has a strong chance of contradicting the Outer Space Treaty, although there is yet to be any real legal challenge.
Steven Freeland explains that the Outer Space Treaty "Generally provides that out-of-space and celestial bodies can't be appropriated by any country, and by extension by individuals, which means there's no claim of sovereignty over asteroids or the moon." However, the lines are blurred when it comes to space mining.
"It's not entirely clear whether that international regime extends to not being able to claim the resources that are extracted from these celestial bodies. The trend is such that, at some point, that's unavoidable, and I think that's a good thing."
There are plenty of real and present reasons to begin space mining as soon as possible.
Rare elements such as lanthanum, samarium, and even helium are becoming increasingly scarce on Earth. Some of these are fundamental to our daily lives - particularly in technology such as computers and smart phones. At some point, it will become far more economically feasible to launch a mission to space to source certain resources.
If space mining does become a reality, it's highly unlikely that there'll be shuttle buses packed with miners rocketing into the sky. The vast majority of activities will be undertaken by robots, however there will need to be extensive earth-bound support facilities. Manufacture, maintenance, and ongoing operational support will provide an immense number of employment opportunities. This is not even considering the research investment required to operate a successful space mining operation.
Space mining represents a phenomenal opportunity for Australia to expand its resources industry. We have the knowledge and the experience when it comes to mining - all we need is some serious space mining skill. It's a new field that's completely up for grabs. It's up to us, as a nation, to insist on seizing the initiative.
Think you have what it takes to be a space miner?