Unearthing futures is a public investigation into possible futures of space mining. Working together with 15 space mining researchers from around the globe, we created 4 provocative scenarios to explore the possible futures of space mining.
These scenarios were communicated to members of the public as a speech given by someone in each of those futures. We then held a workshop where members of the public reflected on their preferred future for the space mining industry.
We documented the effect of the project on both scientists and members of the public.
IN collaboration with Dr. Kathryn Hadler, and Imperial College London
Tight regulation of space mining from an updated version of the moon treaty restricts lunar mining activities and imposes high environmental standards for lunar assets. Obligations to make resources and know-how available to all nations impose additional costs. Mining companies see space investments as high cost and are put off by the lack of short-term profitability.
Space mining is developed by bootstrapping small space companies but these in practice need other revenue streams and rely on revenue from terrestrial applications to be successful. New technologies for sustainable and selective mining are made to first work on earth meaning earth is first to see their benefits.
Terrestrial mining industry continues with normal practices, with mines becoming increasingly automated, smaller and run remotely. When space mining is (eventually) realized, the increases in efficiency and environmental protection cause many countries to apply the same standards to existing mines. Large slow-moving companies lose out to more agile ones.
Space is regulated by a strong international body who all try to meet the obligations of the outer space treaty. Mining companies invest heavily in the space industry due to the security provided by a weight of international customers.
Space mining develops quickly with large revenue streams reaching earth. Most space-faring nations fund a series of international moon bases to support mining activities. To benefit from the international moon bases, countries must subscribe to a treaty collecting taxes from any resources obtained off earth and ensuring that resources are distributed.
Space technologies slowly make their way into terrestrial mining but most R&D funding is channeled towards space-related activities. Due to its high degree of standardization to space standards and the long planning cycles of new mines, it proves slow to incorporate into terrestrial operations.
Scientific probes have found large platinum reserves on the moon and initial lunar mining tests have successfully returned to earth with scientific samples.
Legal ownership and the ability to profit from off-planet resources is still unclear with no international conventions agreed. Access to space is getting cheaper. Many big businesses and wealthy individuals taking a short-term view and undeterred by the legal uncertainties start speculative space ventures. Consultancies are emerging to advise and troubleshoot independent space missions.
Many missions fail, leaving debris on the moon and in Earth's orbit, but some missions are starting successful extraction. Resource extraction is small scale and yet to yield large revenue streams, and with a lot of accidents.
Mining chiefs are put off by high uncertainty over resource ownership and the rate of failure. They see space mining as a threat to their corporate control of mining natural resources. Space technologies have little impact on the earth.
Large mining and space companies collaborate or merge to form attractive long-term business propositions and, where necessary, purchase startups to obtain ownership of the complete route to market.
Mining companies work closely with space companies. and eventually poor regulation of resources, poor merger control and economies of scale leads to the development of one dominant space mining company based in the US.
The dominant company is ultimately the one that creates the most efficient mining technologies. Alongside space resources, this gives them privileged access to resources on earth making them increasingly dominant in terrestrial mining.
However, disputes over the allocation of lunar sites and concern about access to resources leads to the development of a competing nationally controlled space company from China.
Members of the public joined a virtual workshop where they experienced audio scenarios of the future of space mining, explored new aspects of them, and reflected on the desirability of these futures.