Is the earth just an empire?

Mining in space: space full of platinum and gold

Comets, asteroids and meteoroids are rich in precious metals and rare earths. The possibilities of degradation arouse desires.

Natural resources from space: German industry wants clear legal regulations Photo: Planetary Resources / Planetary Resources / EPA / dpa

The future of mining is above the clouds. Comets, asteroids and meteoroids are rich in precious metals and rare earths. An estimated 700,000 smaller and larger such planets orbit the sun, around 17,000 of them near the earth. They could be approached with today's technical means. That should pay off sooner or later: the celestial bodies contain valuable raw materials such as tantalum, platinum or gold, which are scarce on earth. Furthermore, scientists expect that the concentration of metals on reachable asteroids is up to a thousand times higher than on Earth.

Such possibilities arouse desires. At its raw materials congress in July, the Federation of German Industries (BDI) dealt with space mining for the first time behind closed doors. And: The lobbyists are demanding that the federal government deliver a law before other countries are ahead in space.

In fact, only a few specialists have worked on the topic in Germany so far. Even the experts at the Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (BGR) have not really dealt with space mining so far. “We took the raw materials congress of the industrial association with us as a suggestion”, explains a spokeswoman for the BGR in Hanover meekly.

You are one step further in - Beijing. With its “China 2025” strategy, the country is targeting high-tech sectors that have not yet been occupied by the West. Scientists from the National Space Center and the Academy of Sciences are already working on capturing an asteroid in space and transporting it safely to Earth. Many asteroids are only a few meters in diameter - and usually burn up when they enter the atmosphere.

Government should promote pilot projects

In contrast to the deep sea, for example, the technical hurdles and the costs of space flights in space are still far too high for tangible projects. After all, the American and European space agencies Nasa and Esa are planning to send out research probes to explore raw materials. They are scheduled to land on asteroids from 2020.

The BDI also wants to take the first steps in terms of economic policy. In a five-point plan, the lobbyists are calling on the federal government to “rethink its own raw materials strategy”. The increasing demand for raw materials for future technologies requires “a rapid paradigm shift”, demands BDI President Dieter Kempf. The availability of raw materials is "a central challenge" for the industrialized country of Germany: producing countries and mines can now choose their customers - and not the other way around. The government should specifically promote space and deep-sea mining through pilot projects.

The federal government should deliver a law before other countries are ahead in space

The BDI is also concerned with a legal framework for space mining. But freedom is already not limitless above the clouds: The United Nations has written binding international law with five space treaties since 1967, including a so-called lunar treaty. After that, states are free to use space, but there is a "ban on appropriation".

Bernhard Schmidt-Tedd from the German Aerospace Center (DLR) is convinced that mining in space, operated by a single state on its own account and without consultation, would violate international law. The Bonn lawyer is responsible for UN matters in space management. "The German position is like that of many countries: not a national solo effort!" Says Schmidt-Tedd.

Between the UN poles “freedom” and “prohibition of appropriation” there is actually no room for the commercial mining of raw materials in space, warns the DLR expert. Unless the UN members agreed on "an international regime". As in the deep sea, the common heritage of humanity could be used by everyone according to clear, sustainable rules. States that do not have their own space fleet would still get a financial slice of the raw material pie.