Student researchers propose policy framework for asteroid mining on project Khepri

March 23, 2023

Image of asteroid in space

The cislunar economy, or the economy between earth and space, is a burgeoning field with a major driver being the prospect of space mining. Take the Bennu asteroid; researchers have estimated that $330 trillion worth of water could be extracted from this one source alone.

Aside from the economic impact, mining asteroids could have other significant benefits like reducing the environmental burden of terrestrial mining and the ability to extend space exploration by fueling spacecraft in situ. Prior to launching any mission to mine Bennu, there are a host of engineering, business and legal concerns requiring much research and development.

In the summer of 2022, Western Law students Aaron Groh and Brieanna Miklaucic, under the supervision of Professors Valerie Oosterveld and Elizabeth Steyn, joined the effort to help address the policy and legal components of asteroid mining as part of a team of researchers on a multi-stakeholder, multi-university project titled Khepri.

This project, which assessed the feasibility of mining Bennu, was spearheaded and coordinated by Cameron Dickinson of MDA – the company most well known for creating the Canadarm. Groh and Miklaucic joined fellow Western students and professors from the faculties of Engineering, Earth Sciences, and Science along with contributors from the University of Alberta, University of Arizona, University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies (UTIAS), Waterloo University, and UBC's Outer Space Institute.

The project consisted of 3 streams of student research: engineering, business and law. The engineering components examined the technical feasibility of how to mine asteroid Bennu for water and the business components focused on building the business case for mining Bennu. Western Law students led the study of the policy and legal components required.

Groh and Miklaucic published their findings in August 2022 paper Project Khepri: Asteroid Mining Project Final Policy Report. Their paper focused on looking at the current international, US and Canadian legal frameworks for mining Bennu and providing suggestions to enable and improve those frameworks.

Professors Oosterveld and Steyn both recognized the calibre of their students’ research and contributions to the overall project.

"Aaron and Brie had a very unique and valuable summer research experience meeting with the leaders who are in the midst of shaping the law in this area,” said Professor Oosterveld. “We are proud of Aaron and Brie for helping to lead the way in impactful research by Western Law students in the field of space law."

Professor Steyn added, “We are proud of Brie and Aaron, who undertook thorough and diligent research and the results are outstanding. I particularly admired their capacity to integrate non-legal dimensions, which made for a research report that was both theoretically informed and practically relevant.”

Groh and Miklaucic were selected to present their paper at the 2nd International Stardust Conference held at the European Space Agency Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC) in Noordwijk, Netherlands this past November where Groh presented on behalf of the pair. This conference brought together world experts in the field of asteroid exploration and highlighted the value of cross-disciplinary and international collaboration on the topic.

“I am privileged to have been given the opportunity to present the work Brie Miklaucic and I completed this past summer as part of the 2nd International Stardust Conference,” said Groh. “Meeting with experts of both technical and legal backgrounds has helped me understand the scope of work necessary, and the need for cooperation across fields. Sharing the results of our research across borders presents new opportunities for this cooperation moving into the future.”

Going forward, Groh and Miklaucic’s research may just influence Canada’s regulatory framework for space. The pair have submitted their paper to the Canadian Space Agency's open consultation to help the agency ensure “Canada's space-related regulations are keeping pace with the changes in the global space sector so that we enable innovative space companies to prosper here in Canada while respecting national security considerations and international obligations.”

“My experience working on this project has stood out as the highlight of my educational experience at Western Law thus far and has sparked what I imagine will be a lifelong interest in space law and international law,” said Miklaucic. “I'm most grateful to have had the opportunity to spend time focusing on one area of law and learn about it thoroughly and with incredible resources available, specifically the discussions with experts in the field.”