In situ resource utilization

For our new Space Law article on Space Legal Issues, let’s have a look at in situ resource utilization. Celestial bodies – including the Moon or near-Earth objects (NEOs) such as asteroids – are naturally forming objects found beyond Earth’s atmosphere. Many planets, moons and asteroids contain a rich diversity of inert physical substances such as metals, along with gases and water that could be used as energy sources and means to sustain human life as we venture deeper into space. Many of the metals found within the Moon and other celestial bodies are already scarce on Earth. One day, we may use them not only to construct equipment in space but transport them back to support terrestrial activities, employing on Earth the technologies developed to explore and mine resources in outer space.

In space exploration (the discovery and exploration of celestial structures in outer space by means of evolving and growing space technology), in situ (which means “in its original position or place” in Latin) resource utilization (ISRU) is the practice of collection, processing, storing and use of materials found or manufactured on other astronomical objects (the Moon, Mars, asteroids, etc.) that replace materials that would otherwise be brought from Earth.

ISRU could provide materials for life support (a group of devices that allow a human being to survive in space), propellants (a chemical substance used in the production of energy or pressurised gas that is subsequently used to create movement of a fluid or to generate propulsion of a vehicle, projectile, or other object), construction materials, and energy to a spacecraft payloads or space exploration crews. It is now very common for spacecraft and robotic planetary surface mission to harness the solar radiation found in situ in the form of solar panels.

The use of ISRU for material production has not yet been implemented in a space mission, though several field tests in the late-2000s demonstrated various lunar ISRU techniques (using regolith) in a relevant environment. ISRU has long been considered as a possible avenue for reducing the mass and cost of space exploration architectures, in that it may be a way to drastically reduce the amount of payload that must be launched from Earth in order to explore a given planetary body (any secondary body in the Solar System that has a planet-like geology).

In situ resource utilization

According to NASA, “In-situ resource utilization will enable the affordable establishment of extraterrestrial exploration and operations by minimizing the materials carried from Earth and by developing advanced, autonomous devices to optimize the benefits of available in-situ resources”. The three most-likely used celestial bodies in future in situ resource utilization will be the Moon, Mars and asteroids.

In the context of ISRU, water is most often sought directly as fuel or as feedstock for fuel production. Applications include its use in life support either directly by drinking, for growing food, producing oxygen, or numerous other industrial processes. All of which require a ready supply of water in the environment and the equipment to extract it. Such extraterrestrial water has been discovered in a variety of forms throughout the Solar System, and a number of potential water extraction technologies have been investigated.

Rocket propellant production has been proposed from the Moon’s surface by processing water ice detected at the poles. The likely difficulties include working at extremely low temperatures and extraction from the regolith. Most schemes electrolyse the water to produce hydrogen and oxygen and cryogenically store them as liquids. Also, it has long been suggested that solar cells could be produced from the materials present in lunar soil. Silicon, aluminium, and glass, three of the primary materials required for solar cell production, are found in high concentrations in lunar soil and can be utilised to produce solar cells.

In-Space Manufacturing (ISM)

Long-duration Exploration missions require a paradigm shift in the design and manufacturing of space architectures. The ability to perform In-Space Manufacturing (ISM) provides a solution towards sustainable, flexible missions (both in-transit and on-surface) through on-demand fabrication, repair, and recycling capabilities for critical systems, habitats, and mission logistics and maintenance. These capabilities provide tangible cost savings due to reducing launch mass, as well as significant risk reduction due to decreasing dependence on spares and/or over-designing systems for reliability. ISM is developing these capabilities by leveraging the highly disruptive technologies being developed terrestrially and adapting them for operations in the space environment. Thus, the International Space Station (ISS) serves as a one-of-a-kind test bed on the ISM technology development roadmap.

Space Legal Issues

Earth’s natural resources are already under pressure from the planet’s growing population, estimated to reach nearly ten billion by 2050. Rising demand for resources will eventually push the economic balance in favour of harvesting resources from space to sustain our lives on Earth.

The space industry is undergoing an extraordinary evolution. As national budgets tighten, governments are increasingly seeking to involve the private sector in all aspects of space transportation and exploration, which private companies are keen to do as the commercial imperative transforms the economics of outer space.

Both established players and start-ups are using lower cost technologies – including nano- and microsats – to build innovative systems and services in Earth observation or satellite communications. Private companies are already successfully delivering cargo to the International Space Station (ISS). Others are keen to develop the launch and hosting capabilities to take humans to the ISS, the Moon or even Mars. There is a recreational side, too. Space travel companies promise an exhilarating ride to the edge of our atmosphere and are actively offering seats on their future spacecraft.

Is in situ resource utilization, regarding the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, legal? The idea of using space resources was already around when the 1967 Outer Space Treaty was concluded at a time when the United States and the former Soviet Union were competing to reach the Moon. Let’s recall that Article II of the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (entered into force on October 10, 1967) states that “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”.

This Article II, with the development of private projects of mining asteroids or the Moon, and the advent of two laws enabling those practices (the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015 and the Loi du 20 juillet 2017 sur l’exploration et l’utilisation des ressources de l’espace), is today subject to many debates.

While we’ll come back later on the lawfulness of space mining activities, let’s note that there are two approaches to this matter. A first one which considers that Article II of the 1967 OST forbids the national appropriation of “outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies”, and a second one which considers that exploitation of the mineral potentials of celestial bodies is not appropriation. Those two conceptions present interesting arguments, but let’s remember that outer space needs to be invested by Mankind. As a result, we have to promote the private initiatives and encourage private companies to invest outer space.

I therefore believe that we have to let nations, space agencies and private companies use outer space resources, for in situ resources utilization, or simply for business. We hope these questions will be discussed at the Legal Subcommittee of the United Nations’ Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS).