Australian expert expects first space mining transaction in 10 years

Source: Xinhua| 2017-09-20 18:02:11|Editor: Song Lifang
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SYDNEY, Sept. 20 (Xinhua) -- The first transaction in space mining could only be 10 years away, the director of the Australian Center for Space Engineering Research, Andrew Dempster, told Xinhua on Wednesday, at the third Off Earth Mining Forum in Sydney.

With some of the sharpest minds on hand to represent the world's leading institutions including NASA, the European Space Agency and the Hague Space Resources Governing Group, the two-day event aims to give researchers, developers and investors a window into what will soon be possible.

Although once thought of as pure science fiction, space is set to become the new economic frontier and the future of space mining will become a huge part of that.

"Initially we are not looking at replacing mining on earth," Dempster explained. "We are replacing stuff in space."

Surprisingly, it seems the first commodity that will likely be mined in the cosmos, is water.

"One of the big values of water in space is that when you separate it using solar energy perhaps, into hydrogen and oxygen, you have the basis for rocket fuel and that rocket fuel can be delivered in space much more cheaply, than we can bring from planet earth," said Michael Simpson, vice chair of the Hague Space Resources Governing Group.

There are still a number of technical challenges that face engineering experts, when it comes to carrying out these kinds of missions.

"You will need robots that need to be highly reliable to do the operations," Dempster said.

"But the basic technologies do exist, we've seen these robots operating on other planets, so we are hoping that an army of these robots will help us do that work."

Other problems the international space community are likely to encounter are in areas of law.

"On the legal side, it is very important that international law is followed by everyone involved and that all the stakeholders and international players are happy with what everyone else is doing," Dempster said.

"We are hoping that the way the legal international framework is set up will allow companies to mine in space, but it will need a precedent and some testing to make sure the law actually supports that."

Some fear the race to mine resources in space could increase conflict among nations and lead to greater ethical dilemmas, but according to Simpson, the way law operates in space makes it a highly cooperative environment.

"The reality that we are beginning to discover in space is that resources are so abundant that at least for a period of time, if we plan well we can avoid having to fight over them," he said.

Already, an American company, United Launch Alliance. has made it clear they're willing to buy water extracted from space, to be turned into rocket fuel.

"There is a customer and the market has started to be created," Dempster said.

"I think that it is entirely feasible that in 10 years the first transaction will be done."

The concept of a "space economy" however, is not something that lies only with mining.

Currently the spacecraft that handle global communications traffic is worth around 200 billion U.S. dollars a year and a number of technology startup firms are eyeing this potential market.

"Before the internet came along, there wasn't an industry in terms of sending emails or building websites or making TV shows that you can watch on demand, those industries didn't exist," Tim Parsons from the Delta V NewSpace Alliance explained.

"But now 20 years later, we have a huge global economy based on mobile phones, based on sending photographs around the world, based on chat and e-commerce, so we think the same thing can happen in space."

"We think there are new economic sectors we can create in space, around the Earth and beyond, and that will create a lot more wealth and a lot more opportunity on the Earth."