Space is not just a subject of science fictions and fairy tales. It is now considered a treasure trove of resources, drawing attention of governments and companies.
US space agency Nasa (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) estimates that asteroids hold an economy worth $700 quintillion –equivalent to $95 billion worth for each of us on earth.
So there is no wonder that global superpowers and economic powerhouses vie for space treasures.
The USA and Russia would definitely be at the forefront of the new version of space war. But there is no falling behind for Asian contenders - China and India.
China became the first country to land on the far side of the moon earlier this year, which puts the Asian giant in the race to catch up with Russia and the United States to become a major space power by 2030.
But India’s ambitious moon mission faced a setback on Saturday as it lost contact with ground station just before its soft-landing on south pole.
With no activity in space, tiny European nation Luxembourg is also swamped with registered companies hoping to explore the space.
While space looks set to be the next contested grounds, concerns are there that the potential quadrillions of dollars’ business will lead to weaponization of outer space, in the absence of appropriate regulatory framework.
“Mining rights, ownership, regulation, and global accords are key elements that need to be determined now in order to avert future conflict,” Jayshree Pandya, CEO of Risk Group, writes in Forbes.
The UN Conference on Exploration and Peaceful Uses of the Outer Space in 1968 was the first to set some guidelines for space missions, a year before the US first manned mission landed on moon. Russia, the then USSR, had its moon mission even earlier, when its Luna-2 was the first human-made object to touch the moon in 1959.
Another instrument worked out in 1967 was the Outer Space Treaty (OST), a Cold War-era accord signed by 105 countries limiting military development in space.
But such instruments are not enough as outer-space innovations are driving private-sector entities crazy about getting access to extraterrestrial resources like hydrogen, carbon, silicon, metals, and other critical materials.
The OST overlooks the issue of ownership of space resources. So countries are framing laws for themselves.
US approved the world’s first space mining law in 2015. Luxembourg got one in 2016.
The law opened a floodgate of investment to Luxembourg, a tax haven of choice of many global corporates and mega-rich individuals. Its space industry accounts for some 1.8% of its GDP, highest in EU.
With its legal framework that addresses the ownership of space resources, it takes the lead in this new gold rush for the riches of space.
Some of the global giants, and even lesser-known companies, are hoping to make a fortune out of space. Though a small country, Luxembourg, for its forward-looking regime, entered the space resources race in 2016, attracting even US’s largest companies in the field. Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources are among them.
There are now 10 space-mining companies registered in Luxembourg.
“Since February 2016, we interacted with almost 200 companies that have contacted us,” says Paul Zenners, a representative of Luxembourg’s ministry of economy.
Space-mining companies are brandishing overambitious launch schedules as a new space race gathers pace. Chance of life beyond earth lies much closer than expected. Between the moon and an estimated 16,000 near-Earth asteroids, the resources available could be rich enough to produce the world’s first trillionaire, some experts – including renowned astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson - say.
In 2017, a feasibility study done by USGS research geologist Laszlo Kestay found that near-earth asteroids, including moon and Mars, contain water and metal resources which are “immense when compared to current needs…and could sustain a million-fold increase in human activity in space for a million years.”
Apart from profitable mineral and gaseous resources, moon has trace of life-sustaining lunar water, which is must for space activities. “If we find water resources on the moon, we can develop a whole new resource industry in space,” says Takeshi Hakamada, CEO of ispace, a Tokyo-based private exploration company.
Nasa scientists believe moon colonies, which will provide a blueprint to Mars, could become a reality in the next four years. The US space agency plans to have people on Mars by mid-2030.
Dr Brad Tucker, an astrophysicist at the Australian National University, said the moon is full of resources like water ice and Helium-3, which could assist in making Mars - and even the moon itself - more habitable for humans.
Preparations are on for human resource development in the field. Colorado School of Mines has been a leading institution for the study of space resources since the 1990s. It has also become a destination for space scientists and aerospace companies.
As the race for space resources has sped up, concerns are growing about legal implications. In a research paper of Observer Research Foundation, Senjuti Mallick and Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan appreciated the effort for economic benefits, but argue against the national legislations legalising extraterrestrial appropriation of resources. The concept of “common heritage of mankind” is defeated in the light of such legal frameworks, they felt.
While a methodology for assessing space resources is yet to be developed, key questions remain regarding space mining technology and policies for this new frontier.