Is water the fuel of the universe? This could be the case if we consider countries in the Middle East such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which are seeking ways to diversify the benefits of fossil fuels.
“Middle Eastern oil countries are investing in satellite technology and attempting to transform their domestic economies into digital and knowledge-based economies,” says Tom James from Navitas Resources, an energy consulting company based in London and Singapore.
As space explorers like Elon Musk and Jeffrey P. Bezos aim to reduce the cost of space travel, oil-rich countries (and some others) are attracted by the potential benefits of mining minerals and water in space. These oil-rich nations are currently investing in companies and infrastructure that could exploit resources found on the Moon, asteroids, and small planets in the future.
“They are investing in this field to attract business to the Middle East,” says James. “Oil-rich countries have vast and empty spaces, low population density, and proximity to the equator.”
The UAE has made significant efforts to establish a space industry, investing over $5 billion, including four satellites already in space and one scheduled to launch in 2018.
“The Middle East is an ideal location for rocket launches and space vehicles,” says James. “This is a long-term strategy. Oil and gas won’t last forever, so they are seeking places to invest and become part of the future economy.”
Water is incredibly important as it can be converted into hydrogen gas for spacecraft fuel, oxygen for breathing, or for everyday use. With a four-day journey and large ice deposits, the Moon becomes a leading candidate for resource extraction.
Interest in space industrialization and mining has been sparked by figures like Musk, Bezos, and others in recent years. A crucial aspect of reducing the cost of space travel and space industrialization is finding resources in space, such as water and minerals, without having to carry them from Earth.
Goldman Sachs mentioned in a recent study that “space mining could become more realistic than perceived.” The report also suggests that water reserves could potentially “change the game” as propellant depots could be created in orbit. Most minerals would be retained for space use, but some high-value and rare resources could be brought back to Earth.
For example, Goldman Sachs cited an interview with Planetary Resources in 2012, estimating that an asteroid the size of a football field could contain up to $50 billion worth of platinum.
“Extracting minerals from asteroids could quickly become a supply source for the in-space manufacturing economy, as these materials are readily available,” according to the Goldman Sachs report.
Although the technology is already available, it is not an easy task. Asteroids travel at speeds of tens of thousands of kilometers per hour, making tracking and determining their composition challenging. While it may be achievable, the question of cost versus benefit remains, and there are still many aspects to consider before determining the profitability of space mining. However, it remains a promising industry.
“While psychological barriers to asteroid mining are significant, the actual barriers to entry are lower than perceived, particularly for financial and technological reasons,” states the Goldman Sachs report. “Mineral prospecting spacecraft can be built for tens of millions of dollars, and California Institute of Technology has suggested that a space mining spacecraft could cost as little as $2.6 million.”