Is Africa Ready For Lunar Mining Missions?

Image Source: Universe Today

Our knowledge of the earth is expanding all the time because of human activities in space exploration. Space awards humans with a massive marketplace.

According to the Executive Summary – African Space Industry Annual Report 2019 Edition published by Space in Africa, the African Space Industry is now worth over USD 7 billion annually, and it is projected to grow by over 40%, exceeding USD 10 billion in the next 5 years.

Many African countries are taking steps to develop national space policies while the development of a regional space programme for the continent is in progress. In timely fashion, a workshop with an interest in socio-economic benefits of space resources utilisation was held last month to give an overview of the potential advantages and disadvantages of space resources activities, with specific interest in space mineral resources, considering the context of African space activities and policy.

There is an ongoing conversation on whether African countries and the African Space Agency should envision the admiring possibilities of space exploration programmes through commercial partnership opportunities and international collaboration while fostering healthy competition. With a specific focus on Lunar Mining, it is imperative to explore some specific opportunities and challenges for growth in the space exploration industry.

e/f = estimate/forecast. Source: Fitch Solutions

Large mining operations in Africa have generated big profits for foreign companies, with little local benefit. Now governments are trying to harness more mining revenues for  development purposes. Multinational firms from Europe, North America and (more recently) China still dominate the extraction and refining of most minerals mined in Africa, with minimal input African firms. From these minerals, foreign manufacturing firms produce consumer and industrial goods for sale in global markets at much higher prices than what’s paid for the raw materials. This state of affairs has been a source of angst among policy makers and economists, who are calling for increased local participation in the mining industry.

Before African countries begin any Lunar mining mission (for profit sake), it will make sense for them to implement better policies to support the mining of its natural resources. The local mining industry in Africa also bedevilled by the unavailability of necessary commercial mining companies on the continent. It will then be important for African countries to invest in the local mining and space industry to create a cluster of companies that can support and deliver its missions.

Many African countries have an abundance of mineral resources. For example, DR Congo alone has abundant virgin mineral deposits estimated to be valued at USD 24 trillion. This is incomparable to the global space mining market, which is estimated to grow from USD 0.65 billion in 2018 to USD 2.84 billion by 2025, at a CAGR of 23.6%, according to Markets & Markets. While the future of lunar mining is still not very predictable, it is important for Africa to get involved quickly enough to avoid being latecomers in the future; even if the continent will not put investments in this direction, it should at least set up policies to guide this sub-section of the industry.

In 5 years time, the development of space resource activities will become an space governance issue. Many private players and commercial corporations around the world are having deep inclinations to pursuing space-resource related activities, and in order to attract funds and investments, all these actors will need certain regulations which will increasingly pile the pressure on the governments across the continent. It is important to believe that the time is ripe. Hence, the AU should race against time to facilitate discussions among the African Space Agency and national space agencies on the future space resources activities and government regime.

The Draft Statute of the African Space Agency clearly states the main objectives of the African Space Agency. Article 4 of the Draft Statute also introduces 7 major sub-objectives which the African Space Agency shall accomplish to achieve its main objectives. The main objectives to be highlighted are as follows:

  1. To promote and coordinate the implementation of the African Space Policy and Strategy;
  2. To conduct activities that exploit space technologies and applications for sustainable development and improvement of the welfare of African Citizens.
Note: scores out of 100; higher score = more attractive market. Source: Fitch Solutions Mining Risk/Reward Index

Now, the space resources industry is becoming prominent, natural space resources can be extracted from most notably celestial bodies beyond our planet – including the Moon or near-earth objects (NEOs) such as asteroids. Thus, to address Africa’s socio-economic opportunities and challenges, the Agency should make its move to join the global space race of ‘moon for all of humanity’, while harnessing the potential benefits of space science, technology, innovation and applications.

A host of technical and legal questions that challenge commercial companies to appropriate space resources under international space treaties still needs to be answered. Amidst the objectives of the Agency, it is a chief concern to consider various space missions to the Moon with gathered data that proves the mineral wealth of the lunar dust and rocks. Many national space agencies and commercial private entities are broadly participating in future planned missions to the Moon. Thus, to maximise the benefits of current and planned space activities, the Agency should take its first step to further unveil the resource potential in Lunar Mining, while understanding the extraction and processing methods.

While it will be ideal for private companies to lead the missions for space exploration in Africa, government intervention will be key to any lunar mission, due to challenges around policy and funding. As a case study, in 2017 the government of Luxembourg signed into law the creation of state-funded programmes intended to incubate asteroid mining startups (one of the startups, Planetary Resources, received about USD 30 million to facilitate the company’s goal of launching the first private asteroid prospector satellite in 2020). Also, The European Space Agency (ESA) is making plans to begin mining operations on the Moon and is collaborating with Ariane Group (a private company) to accomplish its goal.

As the African Space Agency makes plans to begin full operations soon, it might also be essential for it to explore international collaborations for space exploration missions (manned or unmanned); some people argue that it is about time Africa had its first real astronaut. There are already clusters of NewSpace companies in Africa doing amazing work developing satellite and its components; with more support from governments, new research and development could go into space exploration across the continent.

For the past 20 years, the African Space Industry has been focused on capitalising on space technology to solve its socio-economic development challenges, and this has been working quite well, with solutions developed across several sectors. However, maybe it is time for the continent to go deeper than this.

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