The Hague Institute Roundtable on the Governance of Space Mineral Resources brought together political and legal experts, to initiate and contribute to the debate in an informal and multi-stakeholder setting. During and after the roundtable, the development of a roadmap for advancing this issue of major strategic relevance would be started and major next steps defined.
In December 2013, the Chinese landed a probe, Chang’e 3, on the moon. Besides demonstrating that they have the technology required for moon exploration, China initiated the assessment of the discovery of mineral resources using the rover called Yutu. The US, India, and Japan carried out similar assessments from orbit. In the last few years, several US companies have been set-up with the goal of preparing for the commercial exploitation of space mineral resources (SMR) reportedly available on asteroids and the moon by developing the necessary infrastructure. NASA is currently planning to capture an asteroid to test new technologies and explore its chemical composition by 2020. A Bill called “Asteroid Act” aiming to grant property rights and other protections to commercial US asteroid mining ventures was presented to the US Congress for hearing in September2014. These recent events point to the worldwide interest raised by prospect of exploiting SMR for both scientific and economic purposes. The availability of so-called critical materials such as platinum group metals together with rare earth elements are of strategic relevance. They are required for manufacturing high tech commercial and military products. Critical minerals from the moon are thought to be rare earth elements, while those on asteroids are mainly platinum group metals. All these minerals can be used in the constructing new infrastructures in space. Confirming that reserves exist on the moon and asteroids will require exploration in situ. This will foster, in the next few years, public, private or combined missions aimed at this end.
So far, space exploration has been driven by political and scientific reasons financed by major space faring nations like the US, Russia, Japan, China and countries in Europe. More and more though, economic benefits are becoming the driver of space exploration. Economic incentives will expand when the legality of exploitation for commercial purposes is confirmed, and the rights and obligations of all parties are clearly delineated. A confirmation of the legality of SMR exploitation at a global level by means of implementation agreements stemming from the Outer Space Treaty shall increase the readiness of businesses to invest in SMRs. This would initiate a virtuous circle of investments with positive contribution to science, technology and innovation. The implementation agreements could help avoid possible militarization of space by creating a regime of legal protection for the economic investments. Furthermore, SMR exploitation could transform space activities from being a consumer of resources into a source of value. Nevertheless, exploitation of SMR should be an opportunity opened to all countries without creating or perpetuating a situation of monopoly and should avoid a new “gold rush” in space. In particular, developing countries should be involved from the onset in this new endeavour since it signifies a new frontier to peaceful universal collaboration.
The exploitation of SMR requires mastering key technologies as well justification from an economic and legal standpoint. Today there is neither a consensus on the legality of exploiting resources, according to the UN Outer Space Treaties, nor on the required governance structure. The Hague Institute Roundtable on the Governance of Space Mineral Resources brought together political and legal experts, to initiate and contribute to the debate in an informal and multi-stakeholder setting. During and after the roundtable, the development of a roadmap for advancing this issue of major strategic relevance would be started and major next steps defined.