Fending off claim jumpers was a big problem for prospectors during the Gold Rush of 1849. Fast forward 175 years, and the trucking companies that decide to make a go of it in the lucrative near-Earth precious metal mining game may face the same problem.
“International law states that no one owns these new-space resources — you can’t plant a flag and say this asteroid is mine,” Denisa Scott, founder of NüsPrime Endeavors LLC, told FreightWaves Executive Publisher Kevin Hill during a SpaceWaves fireside chat Thursday.
“However, if you’re able to mine a chunk of it, nobody’s going to say you can’t sell it if you can get back to Earth — which means there’s going to be a lot of incentive by bad actors who try to hijack it on the way. And like in 1849 when there was no sheriff and complete lawlessness, there isn’t going to be a sheriff in space, or space cowboys riding to the rescue.”
If that sounds more science fiction than reality, it’s not. Scott, who advises companies looking to tap into emerging space markets, provided as evidence 16 Psyche, a 140-mile-diameter asteroid that is the target of a NASA mission scheduled for August 2022.
But unlike most other known asteroids that are rocky or icy, it is believed 16 Psyche is composed almost entirely of precious minerals worth $700 quintillion — enough to make every person on earth a multibillionaire.
“These are rare earth minerals that go into our electronics and into the new technologies driving sustainable electricity generation, like hybrid electric cars, and new shipping technology powering land and sea vehicles,” Scott said. “Anything that is modern-day electronics requires these elements, and right now there’s huge competition for them globally. There are companies already planning on getting there first.”
For trucking and logistics companies, much of the opportunity will flow from autonomous vehicle technology — including heavy trucks — that can be controlled remotely. Physical security will have to be a major consideration.
“A lot of issues prospective players in this industry need to think about will be how do you authenticate,” Scott said. For example, she said, suppose a service vehicle approaches your automated space truck carrying cargo that needs to be serviced.
“How are you going to authenticate whether that’s a benign service vehicle and not a bad-actor robotic vehicle that’s going to make off with your cargo? When you’ve got such a long lag in communications between vehicle and command post, you’re going to have to have some autonomy in allowing your truck to react in a certain way — fight or flight.”
With the potential for significant money to be made in the space industry, such security issues — as inconsequential as they may seem now — will require a legal framework sooner rather than later, according to Scott, who is an adviser to the U.S. government on space issues.
“The original international space treaties in place since the late 1960s have been explicit about no one owning space and no country having the right to determine law in space,” she said.
“But any trucking executives who want to get in on the game need to understand what are the treaties, what are the protocols. The government isn’t the one that gets out there and establishes these routes and interfaces, it’s private industry that will lead the way now that the technology is there and private companies are able to survive and thrive doing business in space.”