Space Resources: Even if moonshots fail, technological innovations still add value
Assistant Deputy Minister, Lands and Minerals Sector
Natural Resources Canada
Glenn Mason is the Assistant Deputy Minister of Natural Resources Canada’s (NRCan) Lands and Minerals Sector. From 2014 until 2018, he was Assistant Deputy Minister of NRCan’s Canadian Forest Service. Prior to that, Glenn served as the Director of Strategic Operations for the Social Development Policy Secretariat in the Privy Council Officeand as the Director of Strategy at Human Resources Development Canada.
Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) seeks to enhance the responsible development and use of Canada’s natural resources and the competitiveness of Canada’s natural resources products. It is an established leader in science and technology in the fields of energy, forests, minerals and metals, and earth sciences.
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1- The real medium-term value of space resources will be in the technological advancements it will bring back to Earth – both in the mining industry and beyond.
2- While Canada has strong mining and space sectors, we need to develop a platform for them to collaborate to develop our space resource industry.
3- The development of space resources will depend on both the legitimization the private sector brings to the industry, and the large investments it requires from the public sector.
Canada must do three things to position itself in the future of space mining. Firstly, we need to develop a policy framework that would include broad actions around tax, investment funding, government policy programs and legislation relating to space mining. Secondly, we need to make significant investments in research for space resources and in building Canada’s related innovation ecosystem building cross-sectoral linkages, for instance linkages between space research and mining. Finally, the government should engage young Canadians in a conversation about the future of our mining and metals sector.
What is the Canadian Minerals and Metals Plan (CMMP) and what are its goals?
The last time Canada had a national conversation about mining was in the mid-1990s with the Whitehorse Mining Initiative. At a high level, Natural Resources Canada’s (NRCan) Canadian Minerals and Metals Plan is an opportunity for Canada to come together as a nation to ask ourselves what we want out of the sector in the next 20 or 30 years and beyond. Our aim is to reaffirm Canada’s position as a leading mining nation through the development of a holistic vision for minerals and metals, by engaging not just our provincial and territorial partners but also industry, Indigenous Peoples, NGOs, communities and Canadians in conversation.
These discussions will shape public policy going forward, including an Action Plan to follow in 2020 – with specific measures that government and industry can undertake to bolster the competitiveness of the sector across the range of sustainable mineral development activities, and positioning Canada to capitalize on changes to the global economy.
Does space mining fit into the CMMP and how would you assess the space mining opportunity for Canada’s future economy?
Thinking about the future of the mining industry means thinking about what it may look like 40 to 50 years from now and ensuring that Canada is positioned to take advantage of new frontiers in mining.
To be entirely frank, space resources is a little peripheral in the mining sector right now. While the mainstream does spend a lot of time thinking about it, critics say that we have a lot to do regarding mining on Earth including mining in extreme environments such as ultra-deep or extremely cold climates, and offshore, before we think about doing it in space.
Having said that, the first two experiments of the recently landed Mars rover were geology-related. One entailed drilling the ground for samples and the other was around seismic measurement, which are both at the heart of mining exploration and earth science. Canada has a strong space industry over 55 years and has been a global leader in mining for 100 years or more. Through the existing synergies between the space and mining sectors, Canada has an opportunity to position itself as a leader on new frontiers. And the Canadian Minerals and Metals Plan is looking at how these new frontiers can be factored into the long-term vision for Canada’s mining future. However, the two sectors have not interacted much historically. Some companies are finally connecting the two using technology. Natural resource sectors are, almost by definition, pretty conservative, cyclical and heavily capital-based. When they go through downturns, they typically reduce investments in research and development (R&D) and when they have the opportunity to invest, they want to make money fast. This is pretty typical of mining, which has not been at the forefront of technological innovations such as AI and automation. But, that is changing now, with many big changes like electrification, battery powered electric vehicles (EV), automation and AI coming from outside the sector.
The mining sector in Canada faces a number of challenges today. First, the easy-to-find discoveries have already been made. We are still mining in Val-d’Or and Sudbury 100 years on, but nobody knows where the next Val-d’Or or Sudbury is. Exposed rock sites used to be the easiest to find, but the next discoveries will either be covered with earth or gravel, or be very deep underground. So, it is increasingly difficult to find new mining sites south of 60 degrees of latitude. On the other hand, the remoteness and lack of infrastructure north of 60 make it just as hard, if not more, to conduct mining exploration and operations. Both of those lend themselves to technological solutions, which would enable, for example, seeing through, sensing, observing and finding patterns in the earth. In the north, remote communications, infrastructure, healthcare, manufacturing and sourcing need to be tackled before mining can carefully develop.
Similar to space, we need to figure out a way to mine in extreme weather conditions in Canada’s North. For instance, weight is at a premium in space exploration. So, we need to design lightweight, compact and efficient equipment to carry on space resource missions. That kind of technology can be brought back to Earth and used underground or even near the ocean floor or in the remote high Arctic. Secondly, astronauts are unable to carry manufactured parts of machines that break down on site. So, perhaps we could use additive manufacturing to build new parts in space. Many planets have ice and various types of ore, so if we develop additive manufacturing in space, we could probably apply it in the high Arctic. If we push the boundaries in space, those technologies can come back and advance our very specific challenges here on Earth.
Put simply, the Canadian mining and space sectors face similar challenges. Accessing and operating in harsh environments or overcoming the lack of infrastructure – not just roads, ports and rail – requires research labs, digital infrastructure and safe places to test new technologies. SMEs in both sectors across Canada need to attract financial investment, reduce costs through innovation and work with regulatory certainty. Ensuring sustainability on Earth and in space requires environmental protection and leaving a smaller footprint.
At the same time, the space resources industry has been moving quite quickly thanks to the U.S. and Luxembourg’s lead in passing legislation on the commercialization of space resources. Nations like Japan, Israel, Australia, South Korea, and the UAE are showing greater interest. As a global leader in mining and a spacefaring nation, Canada needs to play an active role or risk getting left behind.
What is the government’s role in building a collaborative inter-industry effort on space mining?
As I understand it, the Canadian Space Agency’s mandate focuses on science and technology, and does not extend into mining and economic development, which are covered by Natural Resource Canada’s (NRCan) mandate.
In the immediate term, NRCan is uniquely positioned to convene stakeholders to develop a Canadian roadmap for space resources. We are identifying areas where the space sector can benefit the traditional mining sector as it looks to explore in deeper and more remote environments, including the north and offshore.
We also need to better understand the economic and policy environment, while effectively communicating the opportunities that it will create for innovation, investment in the economy and ultimately – jobs for Canadians.
New partnerships between agencies are required, some of which could be driven or aided by government. Canada clearly has a very strong space ecosystem and we can help connect it to the mining innovation ecosystem. The two sectors would need a policy statement of collaboration, which might include commitments around sharing research, funding or support.
There is lots we can do. For example, the tax system could include incentives for attracting investments in space resource companies in Canada. Also, the US has worked on property rights in space, which Canada should build on so that investors are clear about what they can own. However, while there is definitely potential for collaboration and policy change around space resources, the more interesting question is whether it will have societal support.
So, I would pitch everyday Canadians and recommend that Canada do three things to position itself in the future of space mining. Firstly, we need to develop a policy framework that would include broad actions around tax, investment funding, government policy programs and legislation relating to space mining. Secondly, we need to make significant investments in research for space resources and in building Canada’s related innovation ecosystem building cross-sectoral linkages, for instance linkages between space research and mining. Finally, the government should engage young Canadians in a conversation about the future of our mining and metals sector.
How would you articulate to Canadians the value and importance space mining represents for our future economy?
On a recent CBC show, I heard an irate caller tell an astronaut every penny that the government was putting into space missions was a waste of money. He added that public policy should fundamentally deal with people’s main concerns, which are on Earth. It is always difficult to make public investment choices because resources are always limited. Space resources is an especially hard sell because it can be an expensive, complex and risky investment. I believe, the real value of space resources is in the technological advances it will bring back to Earth in the medium term. Even if we never actually mine in space, the research and technological applications will benefit our civilization on Earth. For instance, automation and computers, among other advancements, have all spun off from the US space program. Some industry leaders do not think that big mines will be the future of mining. Modular or low footprint mining may become the norm because a lot of new mineral finds are smaller than traditional finds. Miniaturized, energy efficient and smarter mining technology developed for space could be applied to decentralized mines in Canada and around the world.
There is currently not a lot of support for space resource development because it is not a mainstream issue of political value. On the other hand, some people are very excited about its potential, but they tend to be those who are already in the field or based in Silicon Valley. Most people I talk to are just curious. On the technical side, innovators understand the value of space resources, but a typical mining engineer will build the next mine the same ways he built the last one. In that context, space resource development is going to need champions and evangelists like Elon Musk. So, to an extent, the private sector’s involvement in the space economy legitimizes public investment in space resources.
Space resource development could inspire a new generation to enter the mining sector, while promoting careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) to encourage the students of today to be the miners or leaders of space mining technology of tomorrow. This is critical given the need to foster a new cohort of geologists, engineers and scientists to replace the aging workforce in Canada.
When it comes to encouraging young Canadians to consider space resources as an option, we can be innovative with research funding. In addition, national competitions on space resources, perhaps in collaboration with NASA, would rapidly advance interesting technological ideas. Canadian small and medium sized enterprises (SME) with intellectual property (IP) or novel ideas can help solve challenging problems for both the space and mining sector.
What are Canada’s key strengths and weaknesses when it comes to mining in space?
Canada has a proven track record in both space science, technology, and mining. Our automation, computer science, deep AI, engineering as well as the mining sector are among the best in the world. Canadian intellectuals and technologists are creative and smart, and our financial markets are stable. However, the perception around space resources is that it requires high levels of investment, and it might be difficult for Canadian financial institutions to deploy the kinds of resources that the US or EU do. At the same time, the price point for space missions is dropping rapidly and access to space, thanks to SpaceX, is creating greater access for everyone.
“Canada’s vast geography leads to a very regional country, which is governed by a constitution where shared-jurisdiction is the norm. So, it is difficult to define, deploy and deliver national solutions, national programs and national campaigns when interests diverge.”
One key challenge is that Canada’s vast geography leads to a very regional country, which is governed by a constitution where shared-jurisdiction is the norm. So, it is difficult to define, deploy and deliver national solutions, national programs and national campaigns. A national vision for space resources requires balancing interests and collaboration, which is tricky.