In 1975, the Soviet Union triggered the Space Age by launching the satellite Sputnik No. 1. After a rapid development of space technology, it has now reached the stage of mining space resources. The scenes we have seen only in movies are not just in the imagination or the distant future, but in reality itself. Countries and businesses are recognizing the potential of space resources and are investing more and more in them. In this article, the Sungkyun Times (SKT) scrutinizes the importance and types of space resources, the effort required to get them, and the problems that need to be solved.
Why should People Develop Space Resources?
Limited Resources and Consequent Competition
Currently, the world uses fossil fuels to produce electrical energy. Fossil fuels, however, will be depleted within the next few decades. Oil production was expected to peak around 2010, and is expected to decline thereafter. Apart from that, however, energy demand will continue to increase in the future. The International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts that by 2030, energy demand worldwide will increase by up to 55%. In particular, the IEA anticipates that the expected increase in energy demand in developing countries, including China and India, will account for 74% of the total increase. In addition, countries are fighting for scarce resources all around the world in order to secure even the smallest amount.
|younghoonkim.com/ Decrease of Fossil Fuels|
Limitations of Alternative Energy Efficiency
In preparation for the depletion of fossil fuels, countries have invested heavily on the use of nuclear energy and on the development of renewable energy, such as water and wind power. After the Fukushima nuclear accident, however, negative reactions toward nuclear energy spread, and the utilization rate of nuclear power began to decrease. Korea has recently decided to reduce the rate of its nuclear use, while Germany will shut down all of its nuclear plants by 2022. Subsequently, Korea has paused the construction of two new nuclear power plants and is going to stop operating existing power plants gradually. As an alternative to nuclear energy, countries have sought to expand the use of renewable energy. Renewable energy, however, is insufficient as a reliable solution because its production is heavily influenced by the natural environment and its energy efficiency is lower than that of fossil fuel or nuclear energy. If this state continues, massive
power outages will occur simultaneously all over the world, and modern industrial culture based on electric and electronic civilization may fall into a state of paralysis.
Foundation Stone of Space Base Construction
According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), a 3D printer-based exploration base will be built in space by 2030. A large amount of material is needed to build a base, but there is a limit to the amount of material that can be sent from Earth to other planets. In other words, it is advantageous to obtain the material directly from the place where the space base is to be constructed. In order to obtain the materials there, only the minerals available in the soil should be separated and collected. It is in the same context as mining space minerals, so if space minerals can be collected, they will naturally lead to the advance in building space bases.
What Kind of Resources are There in the Universe?
Space Solar Energy
Solar light can be used to produce electrical energy in space. First, in order to produce energy, a Solar Power Satellite is placed on a 36,000 km geostationary orbit above Earth with solar panels of several kilometers in length. Then, when solar light is absorbed by the solar panel, a current is generated, and the generated current is collected and transmitted to Earth. If you try to make solar power on Earth, the sunlight will be reflected and absorbed by Earth’s atmosphere, and the amount of electricity generated will be much smaller. Solar power generation in space is free from the reflection and absorption of the atmosphere, so the power output is 10 times that of Earth. If people make solar power with a square shaped panel which is 2km by each side, you can supply electricity equivalent to one nuclear power plant. It also has the advantage of dramatically reducing the carbon dioxide generated by thermal power generation. If we replace 50% of the thermal power generation with solar power generation, it is expected to reduce 253 million tons of carbon dioxide per year.
Helium-3 can be used as a substitute for nuclear fusion power generation. Nuclear fusion power generation is attracting attention as a highly efficient source of power generation that can replace conventional nuclear power. The energy that can be produced with 60 grams of fusion material is equal to the amount of energy generated when 20 tons of coal is burned. The original nuclear fusion power generation uses energy that is generated when deuterium and tritium combine to form helium-4. The high-energy neutrons from the process have the disadvantage of emitting radiation while being extinguished. If helium-3 is used instead of tritium, a proton is generated, which does not emit radioactivity and is environmentally harmless.
|wikipedia.org/ Difference When Helium-3 Is Used as a Material|
Helium-3, on the other hand, is rarely found on Earth. Helium-3, which exists in much larger quantities in the atmosphere of the sun, comes toward Earth when solar winds blow. Since Earth is protected from a thick atmospheric layer, the helium-3 does not accumulate on Earth and is blown away. The moon, however, does not have an atmosphere like Earth and is largely affected by the solar winds. Therefore, it is estimated that the moon has a helium-3 content of about one million tons on its surface, which is an amount that all human beings could use over the next of 500 years. It is expected that the United States (US) would be able to supply electricity for one year if 25 tons of helium-3 is transported once by a space shuttle. Jerrald Kulchinski, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison nuclear fusion laboratory, said “The value of one ton of helium-3 is about $10 billion, and it is economical to bring Helium-3 considering the cost for space shuttle.”
In addition, the moon and asteroids have a variety of mineral resources, including resources that are rare on Earth. A lot of meteorites hit the moon and the minerals produced in the process are left on the surface. Asteroids also have minerals on the surface because they do not have enough gravity to hold them strongly enough. Therefore, it is easy to collect minerals because there is no need to dig into the ground like when mining on Earth. Asteroids were also found to have water and ice. Water is an essential material for human survival and gas can be used as the fuel for a spacecraft. The ice of the universe was created by freezing water and gas. It was confirmed that there is enough water and ice to fill 80 tankers on 9,000 different asteroids near Earth. Once this water and ice is available, people will be able to continue activities in the universe without assistance from Earth.
|sciencetimes.co.kr/ Titanium Buried in the Moon|
Interest in Space Resources and Efforts to Secure them
The interest of countries in the development of space resources is increasing. JAXA, the NASA of Japan, is planning to launch a satellite capable of generating ten to 100 milliwatt of power before 2020, and will launch a one gigawatt space solar power plant by 2030. In the US, NASA launched the probe Osirix-Rex last year to determine the presence of metals and organic matter in the asteroid Bennu. The probe will arrive at Bennu, collect soil samples and return to Earth in 2023. It also plans to draw rocks three meters in diameter to the lunar orbit which are now on the surface of the near-Earth asteroid. Meanwhile, China announced the China Manufacturing 2025 to emphasize the importance of space exploration and further announced that space exploration and utilization capability will be an important axis for constructing an competitive country. China is also considering launching exploration spacecraft to capture asteroid minerals in 2020.
Since the space industry consumes an astronomical budget, there has been a limit for the government to support the industry alone. Currently, however, not only governments but also private companies are jumping into space resource development. As private companies participate in the development, it has become possible to advance the industry much more efficiently and economically. Before the participation of private companies, when probes were sent into space, rockets often separated after firing and crashed into the sea or burned-up in the atmosphere. After governments and private companies worked together to develop the technology, it became possible to reuse the rockets by adjusting the drop point properly after firing. The technology succeeded in reducing the cost of launch by nearly ten times. Moon Express in the US is the only company that has been approved by the government for lunar exploration so far and is trying to build a resource exploration outpost on the moon. Currently, the company is creating a MX series that will serve as a resource explorer and lander, and aims to land the MX-1 on the moon by the end of this year, which will perform resource exploration. MX-1 will explore buried resources at the Antarctic part of the moon by 2020. If the economic efficiency of the resources is confirmed, subsequent probes will take resources and bring them back to Earth.
Shade of the Space Resource Development
Conflicting Ownership Clauses
As the advance into space began in the 1950s, there was a need for control and treaties on the universe. Thus, the United Nation(UN) enacted the Outer Space Treaty that could serve as a basis for resolving the space problem in 1967. The treaty includes the clause “All celestial objects, including the moon, cannot be occupied by claims, use, occupation, or other means by the nation.” Therefore, countries cannot claim commercial ownership of celestial bodies. The US, however, passed the space law in its own country in 2015, allowing private businesses and individuals to collect and possess minerals from the celestial bodies. In order not to violate the Outer Space Treaty, it included the provision that “the non-civilian government cannot claim sovereignty or ownership of celestial bodies.” According to the Outer Space Treaty, it is impossible for a state agency like NASA to occupy a celestial body and generate profits because the state cannot occupy the celestial body commercially. The US, however, claims that private corporations can avoid the treaty since they are not ‘states’. Consequently, private corporations can use celestial bodies commercially. From the aspect of the new universe law, it becomes advantageous for advanced countries like the US because the first to land on a celestial body becomes its owner. Both laws are valid right now. It is necessary to correct the law to lessen any potential gap between the rich and the poor in the universe.
Liability Distribution of Accidents
The Liability Agreement, concluded in 1972, stipulates that when damage is caused by objects in the universe, related subjects are liable for negligence. Since it is not clear what the content of the error is, it is not easy to determine who should be responsible for what content and how much should be imposed on the damage. In the future, there will be more objects in the universe than there are now, so the lax parts of the agreement should be adjusted clearly so that there is no confusion.
The space mining era is becoming a reality sooner than expected. As space resources have tremendous value, many countries will try to secure them. If people would be able to use them successfully, they may not worry about resources for hundreds of years, or perhaps even to the end of humanity. If people could wisely overcome the challenges they are now confronted with, the resources of the universe can really bring a lot to humans and the world.
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