The Earthly battle for the riches of space

When Donald Trump launched the Unites States Space Force at the end of last year there was much sniggering and derision from his critics. They won’t be laughing soon.

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  1. Garry White

The Space Force logo was accused of being a direct copy of Starfleet Command in the TV series Star Trek – and social media was awash with jokes and memes mocking the idea as a Trump circus sideshow.

Space Force was just a new toy for a boyish president – one who had been so impressed by the hardware on display at France’s Bastille Day celebrations that he told President Emmanuel Macron he wanted a “bigger” parade of his own. But Space Force isn’t a joke or presidential folly. As competition with China and Russia accelerates over each country’s technological prowess, Space Force will become a major tool of US foreign policy.

Cheaper transport

The race to monetise off-Earth assets is speeding up. The arrival of cheaper re-useable launch systems, developed in the private sector by the likes of Elon Musk’s SpaceX, has changed the economics of spaceflight. It is now more affordable and reliable with launch craft that can be re-used.

During the initial launch of Space Force at an army base near Washington in December, Donald Trump described space as "the world's newest war-fighting domain". There are clearly on-Earth security issues that can be aided by space technology – be it via surveillance or attack.

NASA is, overall a purely scientific organisation. “As explorers, pioneers, and innovators, we boldly expand frontiers in air and space to inspire and serve America and to benefit the quality of life on Earth,” the space agency’s vision statement says.

But the industry focus is now being slowly channelled towards defence and profits, as governments change these high-minded research institutes into agents of geopolitical strategies. NASA is now likely to see a period of mission creep – it will start to slowly change to help boost Washington’s geopolitical strategy.

This week, NASA and the Space Force signed a memorandum of understanding that officially joins the two entities in collaboration with regard to "human spaceflight, US space policy, space transportation, standards and best practices for safe operations in space, scientific research and planetary defines".

China catching up

This comes after China launched its first experimental reusable space vehicle at the start of September. The test was undertaken under a veil of secrecy – with no official launch photos or a launch time disclosed. Although China remains behind Russia and the US in its space technology, it plans to rapidly catch up – and it will use every tactic in the China technology playbook, particularly the foul used for technology transfer of US intellectual property.

This week, a study by US-based China Aerospace Studies Institute (CASI) claimed China attacked Indian satellite communications in 2017 among other counter-space activities. Between 2012 and 2018, Beijing carried out multiple cyberattacks – even as the Indian Space Research Organisation maintains that its systems had not been compromised.

China has multiple other counter-space technologies, according to the report, including anti-satellite missiles, co-orbital satellites, directed-energy weapons, jammers, and cyber capabilities that are intended to threaten adversary space systems “from ground to geosynchronous orbit”. It looks like the battle to control near-Earth space is going to be particularly hot.

So, what riches are on offer?

Well, potentially trillions of dollars in commodities from the Moon and asteroids. The Moon has valuable deposits of gold, iron, magnesium and titanium, but the mining interest is also fuelled by concerns about the longer-term supply of important elements such as the rare earth metals, which is used in communications and other cutting-edge devices. Water is also likely to be a major prize for any such prospectors. Essentially, space is about to become the new California gold rush, but with infinitely more riches to be had if you can get to the deposits first.

Earlier this year Donald Trump signed an executive order that cleared the way for US companies to start mining in space without any international-agreed treaty governing their behaviour – a move decried by Russia as “space colonialism”. America has not signed any major international agreements and effectively declared a free for all in space assets. The urgency amongst America’s rivals to get on with their own projects is therefore clear.

China is moving fast. One of its companies – Origin Space – plans to launch an ‘asteroid-mining robot’ by November. Of course, this is just a test drone that is testing some equipment, but it represents a significant step towards kickstarting a new space mining industry.

Artemis, god of the hunt

On Tuesday, NASA announced plans to build a Moon base by the end of the decade. The so-called Artemis program is expected to start in 2021 with a test launch of its new Orion rocket.

Space tourism is also about to become a reality. Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic plans to conduct its next crewed spaceflight test on 22 October. Then there is only one more test flight to be undertaken before Sir Richard takes a seat in the craft and flies to the edge of space in what will undoubtedly be built into a huge public relations event.

As these industries develop, there will be significant opportunities for real estate investors to own cornerstone assets in infrastructure, these could be space hotels, docking stations and private companies could even build Moonbases to rival NASA if they get the funding. This may all seem to be science fiction but, on a planet with low economic growth, colonising objects near to the Earth to exploit their natural resources makes complete sense. Unless it starts a war in the process, of course.

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A version of this article was first published in the Daily Telegraph.

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