Ministers are looking to the stars for economic benefits and tackling thorny issues of international space law, Marc Daalder reports

Cabinet was briefed about the risks of a “scramble for space resources by the largest players” and told there is likely to be “significant progress in the scale and sophistication” of space resource utilisation in the next decade.

In May, Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta and Economic and Regional Development Minister Stuart Nash presented a paper to Cabinet that ostensibly focused on signing the international Artemis Accords, relating to efforts to return humans to the moon by 2024, but which contained detailed discussions of the potential for “space resource utilisation” and how New Zealand could benefit from it.

While this might sound like the stuff of science fiction, University of Canterbury astronomer Michele Bannister says it’s a real possibility in the near future.

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“This is now on the technological horizon. Our solar system is being actively explored. I don’t think people realise we have 30 active missions underway from a whole range of international actors that are actively exploring different places in our solar system,” she said.

Nash and Mahuta defined space resource utilisation as “the extraction and use of … those extractable or recoverable materials (that is, rocks, ice and metals) contained in or on the Moon, asteroids and other celestial bodies”.

These could be used in space (reducing the need to bring construction materials on missions, for example) or brought back to Earth for scientific research – and even, with time, commercial use.

“The use of space resources has the potential to transform humanity’s ability to explore, understand and use the solar system,” they wrote.

“Accessing and using the resources found in space could well eliminate the need to bring those same resources (eg fuel, oxygen, water, construction material) up from Earth at considerable cost and constraint. This will, in turn, make providing services from space cheaper and more sustainable, enable ambitious long-duration crewed missions and facilitate the construction of scientific and commercial space infrastructure at a scale not previously possible.”

In the Cabinet paper, the starry-eyed ministers outlined the lack of an international regulatory environment governing the treatment of resources obtained from space.

“Unlike the approach taken to other “global commons” (like the high seas and the deep seabed), there is no dedicated international framework to regulate space resource utilisation activities and no existing rules designed to ensure the long-term sustainability of this activity and the resources in space,” they reported.

New Zealand’s position was that “the basic level of regulation provided by existing international law is not sufficient to regulate space resource utilisation in the long-term”.

Instead, officials were encouraged to agitate for “rules that go beyond the existing international obligation to avoid harmful contamination and which are focused on ensuring any harmful, long-term impacts resulting from space resource utilisation are avoided or at least limited and there is a process to understand these impacts”, “sustainable management of space resources” and “certainty of rules for commercial operators”.

A “scramble” for space resources by larger players could jeopardise this, the ministers wrote, and New Zealand had a “critical interest” in avoiding this. But more cooperative work could reap benefits for New Zealand’s space sector, even if, as the New Zealand Space Agency told Newsroom, New Zealand isn’t planning to be directly involved in space resource utilisation.

“In the short- to medium-term, we expect any space resource utilisation activities would be undertaken only to support the deeper exploration of space. While we would not expect New Zealand companies will be directly involved in these activities, some are already developing key technologies, which will be critical for enabling such activities ie cryogenics and life support,” Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment general manager for science and innovation Dr Peter Crabtree told Newsroom.

“The New Zealand space sector also holds expertise in space manufacturing, operations (eg launch) and ancillary services such as ground stations and all stand to benefit from the activity unlocked by space resource utilisation.”

In the paper, Nash and Mahuta cited a Luxembourg study which estimated space resource utilisation could produce up to 170 billion euros (NZ$286 billion) between 2018 and 2045. Already, New Zealand’s space sector is worth $1.7 billion.

Bannister said the paper showed the evolution of the NZ Space Agency from a division within MBIE tasked with regulating a handful of companies to a true space agency, developing policy and looking to the future.

“The thing with being a space agency is your brief is much wider than purely being a regulator. This is a good step in the sense of the NZ Space Agency has started moving towards providing more interaction with foreign affairs on how it actually relates to broader interests beyond the purely regulatory,” she said.

“It’s really good to see New Zealand stepping forward and saying ‘We’re an active player in how we think this exploration should happen’ and the further future of, what are things going to be like when this ramps up beyond 30 active missions to, say, hundreds of active missions? Some of which may be doing things beyond purely scientific exploration. These are big questions. This is a really significant aspect of how are we going to inhabit the place that we live in the universe?”

The Cabinet paper also detailed the reasons for New Zealand’s entry into the Artemis Accords, including shoring up relationships with the United States and Japan.

“New Zealand membership in the Artemis Accords presents significant long-term economic, scientific and relational benefits, as well supports our ability to influence key space policy discussions,” Nash and Mahuta wrote.

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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