On September 8, NASA is embarking on a new mission to investigate the origins of the universe. Launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, a small spacecraft, the OSIRIS-REx, will journey 509 million miles to an asteroid called Bennu. Named for an Egyptian deity linked to the sun and creation, Bennu has likely gone untouched for the past four billion years, offering us a valuable glimpse into the early days of our solar system.
The spacecraft will orbit the asteroid for approximately 19 months. Once it has mapped Bennu’s surface, the Osiris-rex will inch closer to the asteroid. Then its eleven-foot robotic arm will reach out and collect a two-ounce sample to bring back to Earth in 2023.
A seven-year journey to fetch a candy bar–sized sample of rock hasn’t sparked the kind of global excitement reserved for, say, the prospect of blasting Sir Richard Branson off the planet and into deep space. But there’s a bigger game at play here: The precious minerals and metals in asteroids may be worth billions of dollars to galactic prospectors, and NASA’s mission is paving the way for an outer-space gold rush.
Asteroid mining hasn’t even begun, and it’s already being privatized: Several for-profit companies are currently jockeying for position in the fledgling industry. Planetary Resources, founded in 2009 in Redmond, Washington, counts Branson and Google co-founder Larry Page among its investors. James Cameron, the director of Avatar and Titanic, serves as an adviser. A Silicon Valley–based company named Deep Space Industries, founded in 2013, is also at the forefront of the industry.
The initial goal for both companies is to mine asteroids for water, an essential commodity for long-duration space travel. If humans ever travel into deep space—to Mars, for example—we will need water for life support and fuel. But it’s prohibitively expensive to take all of the necessary water supplies with us from Earth. A company that can develop the technology to find and extract water from an asteroid could set up the H2O equivalent of a gas station in outer space—a potential gold mine.
From there, space prospectors plan to move on to asteroids with high iron content and others that contain rare metals—the raw materials that will allow us to set up not just gas stations, but entire communities in space.
“In the same way we moved into the frontiers of this planet and lived off of the land, fished and hunted, and built log cabins and all kinds of things using local resources, that is really what we are looking to repeat in space,” says Chris Lewicki, the CEO of Planetary Resources. The company, which last year launched a test craft from the International Space Station, believes it could be excavating asteroids before the decade is out. Its competitor, Deep Space Industries, has a similarly grand vision of the future. “In 30 years’ time, the vision is to be building cities in space,” says CEO Daniel Faber.
Governments are also rushing to get in on the interstellar action. In June, the tiny European nation of Luxembourg pledged to invest $227 million to help develop the new industry. “We intend to become the European center for asteroid mining,” says Étienne Schneider, the country’s deputy prime minister. If that seems laughable, consider this: Luxembourg is one of the world’s largest satellite manufacturers. The Société Européenne des Satellites, now SES, based in the village of Betzdorf, generates billions of dollars in revenue each year. In the hopes that asteroid mining could yield similar profits, Luxembourg is partnering with both Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries, and is working to attract additional partners as well.
“A lot of people are just beginning to realize that this is not going to happen far off in the future—it’s happening right now,” says Lewicki.
There’s a reason that a nation like Luxembourg is investing in private companies rather than mining asteroids on its own. In 1967, as the space race was in full swing, world leaders anticipated the possibility that countries would fight over galactic resources. To avoid interplanetary conflicts, the United Nations crafted the Outer Space Treaty, which essentially designates the solar system as communal property. The agreement has all the excitement of the fine print on a bank loan: “Outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.”
But even if countries can’t claim moons or asteroids as their own territory, there’s nothing stopping private companies from mining them for profit. Last year, President Barack Obama signed the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, essentially making it legal for U.S. companies to collect, own, and sell any materials acquired from an asteroid. China and the European Space Agency, meanwhile, are racing to the Moon—not simply to conduct science, but to search for valuable resources frozen beneath its surface.
The gold-rush approach to outer space raises a host of legal, economic, and environmental questions, and the U.N. plans to take up the issue of asteroid mining next year. If past experience is any indication, however, the privatization of space mining will inevitably lead to the abuse and monopolization of planetary resources. Science fiction has long predicted the consequences of such for-profit plundering; in the sci-fi classic Dune, for example, industrial control of a rare resource called “melange” underpins a complete monopoly on all interstellar travel. Every land grab in history has created winners and losers, and Obama has approved the for-profit mining of asteroids without placing any regulatory checks on the excesses and abuses that are sure to follow.
“A lot of people see this as an ethical issue,” says J.L. Galache, astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “They think the solar system should be left pristine, like a national park or monument, while others see it as resources to be used.”
For now, though, it’s unlikely that environmental concerns about a few space rocks will halt the rush to cash in on a crewed mission to Mars. Outer space seems far too vast to be despoiled—just as the Earth itself once did. After all, there are thousands of near-Earth asteroids like Bennu, and millions more farther out. “Will anyone really notice if a few 500-meter asteroids are missing?” asks Galache. “Probably not.”