Space mining needs regulation, geologist says

Mining companies and space agencies are looking to dig up resources from asteroids and the moon. When and how that will happen was up for discussion at a Canadian mining conference this week.

Prospecting on asteroids is a couple of decades away, NASA predicts

An artist's impression shows the Steins asteroid. At least a couple of companies have publicly expressed interest in mining asteroids for resources. (ESA)

Prospecting on the moon or on asteroids is probably a couple of decades away, a NASA scientist told a symposium on planetary and terrestrial mining Tuesday.

The event, part of the Canadian Institute of Mining's annual convention, heard that issues like ownership and management of resources in outer space still have to be worked out.

One of the main problems is that no country owns anything in space.

One Canadian geologist suggests a regulatory system is needed for any future mining in space.

Joe Hinzer said the mining industry on Earth is regulated by an international committee under a United Nations umbrella that sets standards in different countries.

"I think that's the kind of approach that might work for extraterrestrial stuff as well," he said.

Hinzer also cited Europe as an example, noting it has developed its own parliament and legal system and operates in a manner similar to that of the United Nations.

But John Gruener, a planetary scientist at NASA, doesn't expect space prospecting to happen any time soon.

He said in an interview that many space agencies are currently concentrating on small robotic missions to the moon.

"They can be accomplished in the near term, in five to 10 years," Gruener added.

Mining ice

The missions, he said, will focus on ice water that's already been discovered in lunar craters.

"The hope is we can separate the water from the other chemical constituents and then use the water to drink, use the oxygen to breathe and use the hydrogen and oxygen as rocket propellants," he said.

Gruener pointed out that Canada has a "treasure trove" of lunar rovers that are being developed and can be used to search for water-ice deposits.

But he added that space-mining companies are still in the embryonic stages of prospecting and are studying to see if it's economically viable.

"I see the real utilization of resources in space probably a couple of decades away — at the most optimistic," Gruener said.

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