Industrial transformation and innovation heavily rely on dependable, secure and resilient access to critical raw materials. Indeed, it is well known that critical raw materials are indispensable for several strategic sectors, including the digital industry, aerospace and defence sectors.

Hence, in order to meet the anticipated demand for the green and digital transition, there is a crucial need for a substantial expansion in the production and international trade of vital raw materials, with a view to preventing disruption in their supply and ensuring strategic independence.

In this scope, in March 2023, the European Commission presented a Proposal for a Regulation concerning critical raw materials. The main objective of the Critical Raw Materials Act is to enhance the value chains of raw materials within the European Union, including their extraction, processing, and recycling stages, thus ensuring the EU’s access to a secure and sustainable supply of critical raw materials. To accomplish this, “strategic projects” aimed at the extraction, processing or recycling of strategic raw materials will be identified and will benefit from expedited permitting procedures and improved access to finance. In addition, each Member State is required to draw up a national programme for general exploration targeted at critical raw materials, and to increase their circularity. They shall further identify the large companies that manufacture strategic technologies using strategic raw materials on their territory. These companies will be subject to a set of obligations, including the requirement to perform an audit of their supply chain. Rocket launchers and satellites are expressly mentioned as strategic technologies.

The Proposal also makes express reference to the role of critical raw materials in the space sector, highlighting the expected unprecedented increase in demand for key materials for the EU’s aerospace agenda. Indeed, the needs of the space sector in this regard are one of the driving forces behind the Proposal. It is also acknowledged that space technologies themselves play a central role in the efforts towards ensuring supply and autonomy with respect to critical raw materials. Indeed, space data and services are useful for locating, monitoring and managing the extraction and exploration of these resources. In this regard, the Proposal expressly indicates that “As earth observation is also able to provide data about remote and inaccessible areas, it should be considered by Member States when drawing up and implementing their national exploration programmes to the extent possible”.

The Proposal follows the Action Plan on Critical Raw Materials and the 2020 List of Critical Raw Materials. That document expressly acknowledges the use of innovative technological solutions (including space data) for mining and processing critical raw materials, and proposed the set-up of the European Raw Materials Alliance, an alliance providing a forum for discussion, analysis and project development to increase EU resilience in this area. A foresight study on critical raw materials for strategic technologies noted, in its turn, that the expected growth of satellites population could have an impact on the availability of certain materials.

Other countries are also developing their own approaches to raw materials. For instance, the UK issued its Critical Minerals Strategy, acknowledging their role in key manufacturing industries such as space. The US has also issued, under its Department of Energy, a Strategy to support domestic critical mineral and material supply chains. In 2022, several initiatives were put forward with the goal of securing a “made in America” supply chain for critical minerals, whilst a Federal Strategy to Ensure Secure and Reliable Supplies of Critical Materials had already been issued in 2019. In Canada, the Canadian Critical Minerals Strategy issued in 2022 notes that the green transformation of the aerospace sector, which is a federal priority, will depend on access to critical minerals. In Australia, the Critical Minerals Strategy 2023-2030 also mentions the role of critical minerals in the space sector.

In Africa, an African Green Minerals Strategy is in the works, with an Approach Paper on this subject having been recently published by the African Development Bank Group. This Approach Paper notes that more focus should be given to multi-country geological surveys to assess mineral resources, including by using satellite imagery.

Several partnerships are also being developed. For instance, the EU has recently initiated partnerships with Canada, Ukraine, Namibia, and Kazakhstan, and is currently in the process of establishing additional partnerships, including with Argentina, Chile and Africa. In accordance with the Global Gateway Investment Package - Africa-EU Green Energy Initiative, Memorandums of Understanding establishing strategic partnerships between the EU and the following countries are expected to be signed: Uganda, South Africa, Rwanda, Senegal, DRC, Zambia, Burundi, Morocco and Algeria. Under this Global Gateway initiative, the EU aims to, among others, provide support for infrastructure, connectivity, and projects related to critical raw materials.

In its turn, in June 2022, the United States established the Minerals Security Partnership (MSP), an instance of international collaboration specifically focused on ensuring security of supply. Initially comprising Australia, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Japan, Korea, Sweden, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the European Union, the MSP aims to enhance security of supply through various measures such as sharing of critical information, increasing investments in secure supply chains for critical minerals, and advancing the development of recycling technologies.

Several countries are also setting up funds to support industry and essential supply chains in critical raw materials. This is the case, for instance, of Italy, which approved a National Sovereign Fund, and of France and Germany, which launched funds for critical minerals. Furthermore, the European Union has also announced its European Sovereignty Fund for a “made in Europe” industry.

In this scope, space mining can play a relevant role in boosting the resilience of critical raw materials supply chains. Whilst few countries have dedicated approaches and laws to space mining (such as the US, Luxembourg, Japan and the United Arab Emirates), a fresh look at space mining as an instrument for ensuring States’ and supply chains’ autonomy – notably in the space sector, a market segment increasingly benefitting from public and private investment and attention – could substantially contribute to the stated goals on critical minerals.    

All in all, public approaches to raw materials will contribute to ensuring the resilience and sustainability of the space sector, whilst space technologies, including Earth Observation and GNSS, can play a central role in achieving States’ strategic autonomy in this respect. New opportunities are thus arising for the space sector, with expected increase in demand for space data to meet public objectives on raw minerals. However, new obligations are also expected in some instances, as seen in relation to the EU’s Proposal for a Regulation concerning critical raw materials. The space sector must thus start preparing for the new opportunities and challenges that are coming its way.