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Space mining could become a real thing — and it could be worth trillions

  • Minerals that lie in the belt of asteroids between Mars and Jupiter hold mineral wealth equivalent to about $100 billion for every individual on Earth.
  • Quickly evolving technology is making landing on asteroids an increasing likelihood.
  • A lack of legal clarity about ownership of space resources makes things difficult, according to experts.
Asteroid
Erik Simonsen | Getty Images
Asteroid

The race to space traditionally has advanced with exploration and even tourism in mind, but space-mining is looking like an increasingly legitimate idea, opening the possibility of a new civilization — and profits — on another planet.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk's SpaceX and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin aim to make space tourism a reality, and ultimately to let humans live on other planets. Now, technology has made landing on an asteroid appear increasingly possible.

Take SpaceX, for example.

The launch of the Falcon Heavy space shuttle and the successful return of two of its three boosters may make it possible to carrying heavier payloads into space and could lower the costs of launches.

"Governments and even experts in the field are still debating over the appropriate uses of these resources, and it remains a difficult question to answer." -Rebecca Keller, senior science and technology analyst, Stratfor

Noted astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, among others, have claimed that the world's first trillionaire will make his or her fortune in space minerals. According to NASA, the minerals that lie in the belt of asteroids between Mars and Jupiter hold wealth equivalent to a staggering $100 billion for every person on Earth.

There's a lack of legal clarity over the ownership of space resources, however, and laws presiding over space are largely ambiguous in general, according to Ian Christensen, the director of private sector programs at the Secure World Foundation, a space-related think tank.

"There are some gaps in the law, and some things need to be clarified to provide more certainty on current laws," Christensen told CNBC, adding there is no single authority responsible for the allocation of resources in space.

The most comprehensive law today is the United Nations-sponsored Outer Space Treaty of 1967, but confusion between countries remains.

"When it comes to the use of space resources, the area is fairly vague and it can be interpreted in either direction," Rebecca Keller, a senior science and technology analyst at political risk consultants Stratfor told CNBC. "Governments and even experts in the field are still debating over the appropriate uses of these resources, and it remains a difficult question to answer."

'Legislation lags behind technology'

Today, national governments issue licenses to parties that want to conduct activities in space, and the countries where private companies operate are responsible for enforcing regulations.

"Enforcement is done by national government authorities, but a specialized space authority does not exist yet," Christensen said.

Space is becoming more crowded, with a surge in the number of companies looking to reap the benefits. Keller said that governments will have to restrict and control the expansion of private interests in the future.

One way to do that could be in the same format as existing climate agreements. Admittedly, the climate change agreements suffer from a lack of enforcement powers, but they do bring people to the table, which is a good start, she added.

"Legislation lags behind technology, almost every time," Keller said, and an accord should be struck in order for concerns to be heard equally across the board.

Current limitations to space exploration and travel capabilities mean that space mining would develop as a relationship between the private sector and the government, said Christensen, who added that he would not rule out the privatization of space activities once the industry matures.

Regardless of how it unfolds, it's likely that anything mined in the early stages will be used in space — not moved to Earth.

"The first step for space mining still lies in space — by using the resources mined to build in space until more technology is established," Keller said. "Until then, activities will likely remain in space."