What was once in the realm of science fiction is slowly transitioning to reality. A reality that has many challenges ahead before any reward, let alone, the creation of a sustaining industry. That industry is the exploitation of resources of the near-earth vicinity including the moon and asteroids.
In the past year there have been several high profile announcements by start-ups with plans to exploit the resources of the moon and asteroids. Companies such as Planetary Resources, Deep Space Industries, Stott Space have all added their prospecting hats to the arena.
Let’s not forget the Google Lunar X Prize and the companies racing to the moon for at least a share of the $30 million Google supported prizes.
Exploitation of off-world resources was the theme that brought together 75 people to the Canadian Space Commerce Association annual meeting in Toronto.
While mining would be the first thought of many when thinking of extracting resources from the moon and asteroids, there are a whole host of issues that need to be addressed even before the first mining operation begins.
It is those issues that were discussed at this forum. They include funding options, the legal rights associated with resource extraction, space policy and technologies.
The Funding Models
Funding a commercial space start-up is a tough challenge at any time, but has now become ever so slightly less difficult in the past couple of years, at least with one model.
With the emergence of government support for both commercial cargo and crew to the International Space Station combined with new start-ups such as SpaceX proving that innovation is possible in the area of rocketry, individual investors and investment firms are taking notice.
A case in point is Moon Express, one of the leading contenders in the Google Lunar X Prize. Founded in 2010 and based in the Silicon Valley the founders, Dr. Bob Richards, Naveen Jain, and
Dr. Barney Pell, have embraced the Silicon Valley funding model.
After completing an initial Series A round of funding they are now in the midst of completing a Series B round of funding. It is this second round of funding which will make or break their chances for prize money in the GLXP.
However the Venture Capital model being used by Moon Express isn’t the only way to fund these new off-world resource companies.
Two other traditional Earth based Canadian models were discussed.
The mining industry in Canada, particularly the junior resource mining companies, are very familiar with Flow Through Shares (FTS).
According to the Canadian government the FTS program provides tax incentives to investors who acquire FTS’s by allowing:
– deductions for resource expenses renounced by eligible corporations; and
– investment tax credits for individuals (excluding trusts) on resource expenses in the mining sector that qualify as flow-through mining expenditures.
Lana Paton a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP discussed the usefulness of FLS and how they might one day be applicable to off-world resource exploitation.
Another model for funding is through the Canadian International and Regional Benefits (IRB) program. Nicole Verkindt of the OMX Marketplace explained that are billions of IRB dollars available to those companies who qualify and use the program. Her talk created quite a stir among the participants who were anxious to learn more.
Space Policy and Law
Ram Jakhu of the McGill University Institute of Air and Space Law said it very well, “you can’t escape space policy and law” when talking about resource extraction off-world and that “politics always win.”
In other words you may want to mine the moon or asteroids but you’ll have to deal with the Earthly issues of politics and law.
Professor Jakhu went on to discuss the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and the 1979 Moon Agreement and in particular said that the Moon Agreement is well balanced and ahead of its time.
Professor Jakhu emphasized that “legal principles and rules for mining of asteroid and the Moon is important and timely to avoid international conflict.”
Melissa K. Force of MKForce Consulting while agreeing with Professor Jakhu on some of the issues did present a view that suggests current legal frameworks are all that is needed for now and that appropriation of resources without the need of owning off-world territory meets the current legal regime.
One area Canada excels in is robotic technology. Whether it’s for mining, the space station or even the operating room, Canada has or is developing the necessary robotics tools.
So it comes as no surprise that about a third of the presentations dealt with technologies suited for moon or asteroid exploitation.
Dale Boucher of the Northern Centre for Advanced Technology (NORCAT) discussed the drills and tools his Centre has developed for in-situ resource utilization.
Peter Visscher of Ontario Drive and Gear which specializes in power transmission technology, couplings and amphibious vehicles talked about their efforts to build a rover platform with a suite of tools supplied by others, such as NORCAT, suited for the moon.
Nadeem Ghafoor of MDA provided a broad overview of Canadian technologies being used now on space missions and future missions including potentially providing the base chassis for the European ExoMars rover.
Alex Ellery of Carelton University discussed the Space Robotics and Technology program at Carleton and the advances they’ve made in small rovers.
Another Step Forward
The one day forum featured a balance of presentations that hit on many of the notes when discussing the theme, Commercial Space Resource Utilization. Bringing together this diverse group to discuss the key issues was another step towards the realization of exploiting the resources available on the moon and asteroids to benefit humanity.
– Alex Ellery, Carleton University
– Robert Richards, Moon Express
– Gordon Osinski, Western University
– Lana Paton, PricewaterhouseCoopers
– Mellisa K. Force, MKForce Consultants
– Nicole Verkindt, OMX Marketplace
– Ram S. Jakhu, McGill University
– Sukhbir Kullar, Teledyne DALSA