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NewSpace 2010: Mining Asteroids and Orbital Debris for Profit

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
July 24, 2010

Asteroid Ida

Physical Threats and and Commercial Opportunities:
Orbital Debris and NEOs

Berin Szoka (Moderator) – Senior Fellow, Progress and Freedom Foundation
Dennis Wingo – CTO, Orbital Recovery Corporation
Joe Carroll – Tether Application, Inc.
A.C. Charania – President, SpaceWorks Commercial
Bob Werb – Space Frontier Foundation

Abstract: There’s gold in them there hills. (And nickel and iron and solar cells and spent rocket stages and all sorts of junk.) All we gotta do is to go get it. And all we need for that is clear international law. Liability protection. An agreement with the Russians. The right technology. The government to get out of the way. And…well…we need lots of things…

Orbital Debris

  • A significant amount of debris in orbit is Soviet and Russian – almost a million kilos of Soviet/Russian debris in LEO
  • U.S. government policy is that we can’t touch it without their expressed permission
  • If we had an agreement, U.S. and Russia would be covering over 80 percent of the LEO debris
  • An agreement would bring other countries on board
  • Cluster used satellites and materials in orbits that aren’t used very much
  • Find ways to re-purpose and reuse this equipment
  • Companies do not de-orbit their rocket stages because they have liability if they hit anyone or anything
  • If the rocket stage just decays, then the liability goes to their government
  • One collision in GEO between two spacecraft has a high probability of knocking out $1 trillion worth of assets
  • There’s only one GEO orbit (as opposed to LEO)
  • Material doesn’t fall out of GEO orbits – it stays there forever
  • Intelsat has an out of control satellite in GEO
  • Intelsat’s position is once the bird is out of its control, the company doesn’t have liability
  • This argument may not wash legally
  • Liability for a spacecraft that crashes on Earth is very clear
  • Liability for collisions between spacecraft in space is more vague
  • In-orbit servicing could be a solution

NEO Mining

  • Lots of metals in near earth objects that could be mined
  • Hundreds of millions of dollars, maybe billions of dollars
  • Concerned about the last hundred miles – getting that material back to Earth
  • Building up a technological and ecosystem to take use of the assets
  • Limited by legal uncertainty
  • Law of the Sea Treaty arrangement could be used – rights to mine particular parts of the sea without granting national sovereignty
  • Deep Seabed treaty – property rights if you do enough to track and categorize it

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