In 1953, a Chilean lawyer named Jenaro Gajardo Vera made a legal claim over ownership of the moon. The claim was in poetic (and petty) protest, following his rejection from the Social Club of Talca due to his lack of owned property.
Now, if Vera were alive today, he could hop online to Lunarland.com and, for the low price of $29.95, purchase an acre of the moon. If he considered moon property unfashionable, he could even opt into buying Mars.
While the legitimacy of this kind of tenancy is somewhat questionable, it is a reminder of the space industry’s potential to become the new frontier for humanity—especially in a business sense. In 2018, the government opened the Australian Space Agency in Adelaide, the first national body focused on expanding commercial space activities.
Prime minister Scott Morrison invested $150 million in 2018 to help support NASA’s next expedition to the moon. With the Australian government making bold financial moves to develop space infrastructure, and the uncertainty of Earth’s future sustainability, what industry will be the most profitable in space? This question has got scientists, economists and entrepreneurs alike looking up to the stars for the answers.
What laws will affect my business in space?
In 1967, the United Nations sponsored the Outer Space Treaty. Ratified by 102 nations in 2013, the treaty made outer space the ‘province of all mankind’, meaning countries cannot claim celestial bodies. This treaty makes it difficult for companies to expand into space, due to article 2: ‘outer space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means’.
Since its signing, no nation has violated the treaty, but that has not stopped some from skirting the fine line. In 2015, President Barack Obama signed the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, a US law allowing the industry to explore and exploit resources in space. This act was contentious; it gave American companies legal backing in extracting minerals in space to ‘possess, own, transport, use, and sell’.
Lawyer and PhD Candidate at the University of Adelaide Joel Lisk studies how countries legislate for commercial space activities. Lisk explained during our interview how space and Earth laws intertwine.
‘… Many fishing companies will go out to international waters and go fishing in the deep sea. Because they are in international waters, the fish they catch is labelled as a resource. … Companies will then use this fact to justify their actions in space.’
Under this logic, a company would be allowed to mine on celestial bodies for their own gain and profit from those resources.
Lisk states that although a country may have legal structures which could prevent more companies travelling around space, countries like America, with a strong commercial space industry, are less likely to be affected by the laws. In his words, ‘…treaties must closely be closely monitored and updated to ensure they remain relevant’.
What will likely be the next industry in space?
Lisk has offered a guess on which industries will be most profitable in the next couple of decades; asteroid mining, space tourism and satellite repair stations.
Bryce and Space Technologies research paper in Global Space Industry Dynamics found 75% of the US$344.5b Global Space Industry is focused around the satellite industry.
Satellites are vital to our telecommunications industry and cost from millions to billions of dollars to create. When they wear out, they are often left to break down in space in graveyard orbits. These dead satellites are left uncollected, due to the difficulties and cost of returning the equipment to Earth.
To combat this waste of resources, NASA is currently developing a satellite servicing station called Restore-L. Restore-L is a robot that will one day service the thousand satellites in orbit today. While Restore-L is still in the works, in 2018 its sister-project, the Robotic Refueling Mission 3, successfully provide the International Space Station with extra resources.
Lisk projects satellite repair stations such as these would be one of the first industries to take off, due to high demand.
THE MINING OF CELESTIAL BODIES
Most countries are wanting to put humans on the moon again, but some have already set their sights towards mining our closest celestial body.
NASA has predicted that changes in technology and increasing interest in off-earth mining could lead to a ‘Lunar Gold Rush’. Resources on the moon include water, helium and rare earth metals, which are largely used in the electronics industry.
The moon isn’t the only celestial body that may be mined in the near future. Asteroid mining is the use of minor planets and near-earth objects for the excavation of resources.
Processes of how asteroid mining will occur are being refined, with no detailed method currently in place. However, Australia with its strong reputation as a mining nation, is at the forefront of conversation and research into the topic. Australian mining company Rio Tinto have been collaborating with the Australian Space Agency since January 2019 in research around space mining. They recently discovered that autonomous drill rigs used in the Pilbara could be reutilised for asteroid mining.
With Earth’s natural resources dwindling, the mining of these celestial bodies may provide a new supply of materials, without causing further environmental damage to our planet.
BILLIONAIRE SPACE RACE
Space tourism is seeing a recent boom with Virgin’s Richard Branson promising that millions will be flying into the galaxy in the next decade
Space tourism is currently reserved for the wealthy, with a ticket on Virgin’s Galactic ranging up to US$25 000 (approximately A$37 000). Despite this, the company hopes to ‘democratise space’ and make it more accessible to the public by having tickets at a lower price.
The new space race is currently being referred to as the billionaire space race, due to the investment of companies backed by billionaires. These include Yuri Milner, Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk.
Blue Origin, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’s competing space company, wants to see millions of people working and living in space. The company is currently on the cusp of sending people into space on the spaceship New Glenn with the first planned flight projected for 2021.
While there has recently been a large investment in the space industry, the industry is still young with the opportunity for growth—and new investment. Now is the perfect opportunity for budding space-tycoons to take a gamble in the space industry.