Mining the Sky

Meehan Crist, Atossa Araxia Abrahamian, and Denton Ebel on Astrocapitalism

An artist's rendition of an asteroid mine, courtesy of Factor Magazine.

Why is one of the smallest countries in the world trying to privatize space?

American entrepreneurs want to mine asteroids—and Luxembourg sees a major business opportunity. The technical and legal hurdles are high. But there’s a lot of money to be made in making outer space safe for extractive capitalism.

In September 2017, three people gathered at Caveat in New York City to discuss this issue. Their conversation was part of Convergence, a live show and podcast about science and society hosted by Meehan Crist, writer in residence in biological sciences at Columbia University. The discussion featured Atossa Araxia Abrahamian, a journalist and author of The Cosmopolites: The Coming of the Global Citizen, and Denton Ebel, Chair of the Division of Physical Sciences at the American Museum of Natural History, as well as the curator of the museum's meteorite collection.

Atossa Araxia Abrahamian (AAA)

Luxembourg is very bullish on asteroid mining. They think it’s gonna be a huge business five, ten, fifteen, twenty years from now. And they’re a tiny country that needs to get ahead in this world. Historically, one of the ways they’ve done that has been to identify emerging businesses and lure them to Luxembourg. So that’s why they’re courting Planetary Resources, a startup based outside of Seattle that’s received funding from Richard Branson and various Google executives.

Meehan Crist (MC)

How big is Luxembourg?

AAA

The size of Rhode Island.

MC

And how does a company like Planetary Resources describe what it wants to do?

AAA

Space is no longer a place where only big, nationally funded projects can go. It’s now open—it’s possible for commercial operators like Elon Musk’s SpaceX to send up rockets.

But bringing things back from space is still a long way off. There are significant financial and technical challenges. So right now, Planetary Resources says that their goal is to refuel existing space missions. Essentially, they want to build a gas station in space.

That saves a lot of money, because it’s expensive to send fuel and water up with rocket launches. If you could just have a fueling station that’s already up there, you could extend the length of space missions.

So that’s the first step. And down the line, the idea is that there are natural resources that we’re going to run out of on earth—or that we don’t have very much of to begin with—that the company can procure in space by mining asteroids.

MC

What is actually in these asteroids that one could mine?

Denton Ebel (DE)

My understanding is that some companies are focused on mining iron asteroids for metals and others, like Deep Space Industries, are more focused on mining carbon and hydrogen and oxygen—water—for space civilization down the road.

We know there are bodies in the asteroid belt that are mostly iron. We have them in the form of iron meteorites—bits of them. In the American Museum of Natural History we have the crown jewel of meteoritics—or I’ll call it that—which is the Ahnighito fragment of the Cape York meteorite. It sits on six pillars going down to bedrock because it’s thirty-four tons of iron nickel metal. That has about eight grams of platinum per ton. By comparison, the richest ores that we mine in South Africa for platinum group elements have less than four grams per ton.

There’s also an asteroid called Kleopatra that reflects radar telling us that it’s mostly metal. It’s 220 kilometers long. You could sit it nicely down on New Jersey. It’s about 4.2 grams per cubic centimeter in density, where one gram is water. Iron nickel meteorites are 7.2 grams or more per cubic centimeter—so this is a porous, large object. It consists of big chunks of iron that are sort of welded together.

MC

So how do you begin to solve the engineering problems involved in asteroid mining? Asteroids are shaped differently, they have different kinds of densities, they have different kinds of gravity. Building a robot that can actually go land on an asteroid and extract something and come back is not a single problem, right?

DE

No, it's a bunch of problems.

On earth, a mining operation is a single, large, complicated thing—one failure and you’re down. In space, we can’t afford that. Instead, asteroid mining will involve a horde of ant-like robots, each of which will work semi-autonomously, linked through a hive mind. This is where people like E.O. Wilson, and other insect studiers, become important for asteroid mining because we will need to understand swarm behavior.

AAA

You can definitely imagine conflicting swarms fighting over a piece of asteroid real estate. It’s something that seems pretty ripe for science fiction, but it could happen.

DE

Robots fighting each other in space—Roy Batty talks about it in the original Blade Runner. But yeah, that’s one scenario for space warfare. Another is throwing things. If you throw something from an asteroid in just the right direction, it will hit the earth and make a destructive impact, because it's going really fast. It’s called conservation of angular momentum.

MC

And how do you power all these tiny robots?

AAA

Well, you need water to do most things—up there, down here, everywhere, if you’re a robot or a rocket or a human. And if you can get it up there, it saves you a lot of time and trouble. That’s why Planetary Resources wants to build a fueling station in space.

But the main point here from Luxembourg's perspective is that this is a massive business opportunity and it’s largely unregulated for now.

MC

Why Luxembourg?

AAA

That’s a good question. There’s nothing about Luxembourg, or where it is, or who lives there, that makes it particularly qualified to get into this game. They don’t have a space agency. They only just built a university. They only have about half a million people. They’re not a massive industrial power.

But what they do have—and this is really important—is the ability to make laws. You can only make laws if you’re a sovereign country. There are only so many sovereign countries. Luxembourg is one of them. And throughout its history, it has survived by making laws that businesses want.

It’s as though lobbyists write their legislation. In fact, sometimes they do. Luxembourg is one of the biggest tax havens in the world, even though it's one of the tiniest countries in the world. It's the second biggest center for mutual funds. Trillions of dollars are funneled offshore through Luxembourg. It’s just astonishing the amount of wealth that passes through this tiny little country, and it does that because they have really favorable tax laws.

Fun fact: right before the Great Depression, Luxembourg passed a law exempting holding companies from any corporate taxes. So what happened? Companies from all around the world flocked to Luxembourg to open up shop. Within a few decades you had tens of thousands of companies there, to the point where you walk past a building in Luxembourg today and there are a hundred firms listed as resident there. There’s no way all of these people could fit in the building. But they’re registered.

MC

By “open up shop,” you mean they have an address there.

AAA

Exactly. And simply by virtue of having an address and registration, they are able to claim they’re a Luxembourg company. There’s a lot of accounting acrobatics involved.

But what does this have to do with space? Well, if you’re a company that thinks that one day you're going to make a ton of money by digging platinum out of asteroids and bringing it back to earth, where do you want to incorporate? You want go to a place that’s going to have low taxes, where it’s easy to set up a company, where the politicians want to help you, and where the country is going to recognize your ownership of the stuff that’s in space. Which is not obvious or intuitive because there isn’t any binding international law that determines who can own stuff that’s in space.

MC

The basis of space law is the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which says that sovereign nations can go out and explore space, but they can’t claim sovereignty over it.

AAA

Right. According to the Outer Space Treaty, space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, use or occupation or any other means. So you can’t go up there and say, “This is part of my country.”

The question is: can a private company not claiming sovereignty say “this asteroid is mine” or “this platinum is mine”?

Property rights in space are not a given. If I take your bracelet, you can say, “That's my bracelet.” Why is it your bracelet? Because you bought it in a shop. There was a transaction. That doesn’t happen in space. There are no transactions in space. There’s no market yet. The whole aim of this enterprise is to create markets up there in a (literal) vacuum.

MC

They’re creating property law where there is no property, or law…

DE

There is some precedent for property in space, though. The moon rocks returned by the Apollo missions, and the moon rocks returned by the robotic lunar missions of Russia—those are the property of those sovereign nations.

MC

Why should this worry us? What are the potential dangers of space privatization?

AAA

Space is relatively untouched. It has not yet been exploited and pillaged—and when it is, I would hope that everybody could benefit from it. If space becomes entirely privatized, however, I worry that the profits will simply flow to the private sector—and thanks to countries like Luxembourg, those profits won’t be taxed.

It’s going to look like the extractive industries on earth. It’s going to be a repeat of what we're seeing in Congo. Now, one big difference is that there aren’t any humans to suffer human rights abuses up in space, so that’s good. You won’t have blood minerals, because the miners will be robots.

MC

What does the Law of the Sea and the history of deep sea mining tell us about what might happen with asteroid mining?

AAA

Well, the asteroid mining companies like to compare mining asteroids to fishing in international waters. They say, “This doesn’t belong to anyone and it’s not sovereign territory, but we can fish and take the fish and eat the fish and sell the fish and do all the things with the fish. Why can’t we just do that with the stuff that’s on asteroids?”

That’s a good question. Some legal scholars say, “Yeah, that’s legit.” Others say, “No, you can't do that without having established who owns what beforehand.” I’m generalizing, but that’s the tenor of the discussion.

MC

You can’t get very far down this road before you start talking about empire. Even if you love the basic science and believe in understanding more about the moon and how the universe started, this is functionally an extension of the colonialist project into space, to some degree.

DE

In 1960, the top federal tax rate on income in the United States was 91%. And if you look at constant dollar spending on space activities by the public sector, the Apollo program in the 1960s was huge compared to what we’re spending today. The shift to private enterprise taking some of the responsibility for space may reflect the fact that the resource balance between private entities and public entities has changed.

MC

One could ask where all those resources came from. Or argue that if all of these companies that are funneling their money through Luxembourg were actually paying their taxes, we might have more money for things like NASA.

What about the idea of space as a cosmic commons? That was part of the intention of the Outer Space Treaty. It states that whatever is done up there should be done for the good of all humankind, and that space belongs to everyone.

AAA

I would love for a portion of all profits made in space to be redistributed. Maybe that’s crazy. Maybe I’m a crazy Marxist.


This piece appears in Logic's fourth issue, "Scale." To order the issue, head on over to our store. To receive future issues, subscribe.


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