This is Part 1 of a two-part feature.
Nearly a century before laggard Europeans got around to their Age of Exploration, Chinese merchant vessels had been travelling at least as far as eastern Africa, returning with vast shiploads of treasure. The voyages ended abruptly in 1433, for reasons debated by historians, and rulers ordered a massive merchant fleet destroyed. That largely left the New World to Westerners, evidently not a policy China intends to repeat. Now the country plans the conquest of three new frontiers: “deep underground, deep sky and deep sea.”
Such are the goals of Three Deep, a five-year plan announced last month by the country’s Ministry of Land and Resources. China’s funding R&D that would take mineral exploration deeper than ever on land and at sea, while exploring from outer space as well. But formidable as they are, the three frontiers aren’t completely uncharted. The expansionist, resource-hungry regime will have competition.
By 2020 the country wants the ability to mine land-based deposits that begin two kilometres in depth, find minerals at three kilometres, and identify oil and gas at 6.5 to 10 kilometres, the South China Morning Post reported October 5. China intends to develop underground communities too, although those details were even more scarce.
China also plans technology for undersea mineral exploration and mining, working towards the ability to send a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) to 11 kilometres’ depth by 2020, the paper added. That’s slightly beyond the deepest known point of any seabed. The country has already sent an ROV seven kilometres deep in the Pacific. In the Indian Ocean, Chinese have been studying seabed mining technology on a 10,000-square-kilometre area south of Madagascar, the SCMP stated.
Going from the depths to the heavens, China wants 27 satellites in orbit by 2020 to conduct surveys and research, partly on terrestrial mineral potential. The country also has expressed ambitions for moon and Mars landings, and for sending its citizens into space. A Chinese competitor to SpaceX, One Space Technology, plans its first commercial rocket launch in 2018.
SpaceX, of course, retains its Elon Musk confidence even after last month’s Falcon 9 rocket blew up prior to take-off, destroying a $300-million communications satellite. Having received NASA contracts to ferry people and cargo to the International Space Station, Musk continues to talk about sending colonists to Mars. He’s already sent some lithium stocks to the moon.
Probably among the more credible companies talking about mining the heavens are Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries. Both develop technology for NAFTA and both have signed MOUs with Luxembourg that would help finance mineral exploration and mining of near-Earth asteroids. The Grand Duchy, a global leader in satellite communications, has announced its willingness to invest in extra-terrestrial mining to become a world leader in other worlds. The country also plans to create a legal framework for its outer space endeavours, after the U.S. passed legislation giving Americans the right to keep any extra-terrestrial commodities they extract.
Deep Space says it will launch its Prospector X experimental asteroid explorer “in the near future.” By the first half of the next decade, Planetary expects to begin small-scale extraction of asteroid water for its oxygen and hydrogen.
Already a nine-year veteran of the main asteroid belt, NASA’s Dawn craft now orbits the dwarf planet Ceres after having studied the proto-planet Vesta. Last month the space agency’s NASA OSIRIS-REx set off for the asteroid Bennu, with arrival expected in 2018 and return in 2023.
JAXA, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, has been to that neighbourhood and back after its Hayabusa craft delivered asteroid samples in 2010.
Last month the European Space Agency ended the 12-year, eight-billion-kilometre odyssey of its Rosetta craft, which spent the last two years studying a comet. In a joint project with Russia’s Roscosmos, the ESA expects to land a capsule on Mars to search for signs of previous life.
Russia’s moon exploration program sees potential for minerals delivered by asteroid impact. “In the next few years, all scheduled moon flights will focus on its southern polar region, where low-temperature reservoirs of rare earths, as well as unknown volatile substances, have been detected,”Industrial Minerals quoted Vladislav Shevchenko of Moscow State University. Given higher commodity prices, mining could be viable, he added.
Boeing NYSE:BA recently matched Musk’s big talk as CEO Dennis Muilenburg spoke about sending holidayers to orbiting tourist traps prior to linking up with the Red Planet. “I’m convinced the first person to step foot on Mars will arrive there riding a Boeing rocket,” Bloomberg quoted him last week. As a NASA contractor Boeing competes with SpaceX on its own and through the United Launch Alliance, a JV with Lockheed Martin NYSE:LMT.