Space the un-minable frontier? Humanity has gone through a series of industrial revolutions; this has affected lives for better and worse. Mining, whilst essential, strips resources and destroys vast ecosystems across the planet. Earth has a finite amount of resource, eventually we will have to look further afield to satisfy our technological needs. The planting of a US flag on the moon symbolised the beginning of a battle; who owns space; moreover, who can take what from space? Since 1967 treaties and laws have been passed by international organisations, such as the UN, and sovereign countries protecting celestial land and assets; however, countries and companies are now looking at viable methods of mining bodies in space.
Asteroids are plentiful; furthermore, they have an abundance of precious metals and water. As a result they have the potential to act as fuel stations for further travel and fulfil our demand for materials back home. Moreover, mining has the potential to change the perspective of space exploration; for the first time it could be economically viable to go into space. The vast profit generated from the proceeds of asteroid resources could revolutionise life on Earth across borders. In theory everyone can benefit from space mining: the Outer Space Treaty (1967) states that ‘the use of outer space should be carried out for the benefit of all counties’; hence, the wealth generated should be spread accordingly.
Earth’s resources are depleting. Precious metals, such as platinum, are commonly used in the chemical, automotive and electronics industry. Platinum does not occur naturally on Earth; all of Earth’s platinum was once deposited from meteorites that impacted our planet.It’s predicted that at current consumption rate we have 15 years of platinum left; there is more platinum on one asteroid than there is currently on the Earth. A 1 km diameter asteroid could contain 7,500 tonnes of platinum worth $150 billion. Mining could help us meet future resource demands on Earth, create jobs and economic growth through the development of a space industry.
Rockets require large amounts of fuel just to leave Earth’s gravitational field; asteroids have the potential to act as interstellar fueling stations allowing deeper penetration into space. The water on the asteroids can be hydrolysed to form rocket fuel allowing for the opportunity to refuel whilst on a mission. Moreover, it could help us increase the number of space missions when combined with reusable rockets – a technology currently under development. The presence of water in asteroids will allow us to create an infrastructure for future developments, experiments and exploration. This developed space infrastructure could lead to an improvement in our civilization state. Mining asteroids preserves the Earth’s fertile land and ecosystems. Mining leads to many environmental issues such as air and water pollution, destruction of terrain, biodiversity loss, soil erosion, and sinkholes. Taking the mining industry off the planet and onto to asteroids will help preserve and protect the planet. Asteroid mining is more sustainable than traditional techniques by offering valuable resources without the expense of our home planet. The benefits of asteroid mining are clear; however, it may not be an ideal solution.
Who has the right?
Ownership of materials mined from celestial bodies is legal according to American and Luxembourgian law; however, this contradicts the original international treaty against ownership of alien material. These legal efforts made by the US and Luxemburg can be seen as a violation of the Outer Space Treaty (1967) in pursuit of their national interest. It is unlikely that governments would mine asteroids; alternatively, it would be private companies that would orchestrate the mining. This could also violate space treaties as only they would profit from the products; furthermore, it could create a massive monopoly that could control the supply and market of a precious material.
As humanity increases space activities the amount of space debris in low earth orbit also increases; once it reaches a critical point collision are inevitable creating even more projectiles. Eventually the amount of high-speed objects will prevent any more activities in space as craft will not be able to pass through this region; this is known as the Kessler Syndrome. Space debris is of increasing international concern as it has the potential to wipe out the global satellite network and spacecraft.
Harvesting minerals from space could lead to contact with foreign biomatter; this biomatter, that is completely new to Earth’s environment, may cause devastating effects on our ecosystem. Many scientists believe that life arrived on Earth from an asteroid; if we mine asteroids we could potentially inhibit another species from developing. Moreover, the dangers of bringing objects into Earth’s orbit for mining purposes could lead to the biggest risk of all – mass extinction. This impact could have a devastating effect unlike anything since the extinction of the dinosaurs.
“Many scientists believe that life arrived on Earth from an asteroid; if we mine asteroids we could potentially inhibit another species from developing.”
The processing of many rare earth metals are toxic to organic life; furthermore, it discourages the movement towards a circular economy. Retrieving these materials from space would have a detrimental impact on the environment – further damaging our planet. Rare earths and toxic metals used in electronics and other industries are rarely recycled or reused; they end up in landfills polluting our environment. An increased quantity of these substances on Earth due to asteroid mining would have a significant impact on the planet.
Asteroid mining is a massive investment, costing tens of trillions of dollars to facilitate. Unsuccessful attempts may lead to huge economic setbacks on investors and governments which subsidise these attempts. This amount of money could be used for other more secure purposes, such as solving world hunger, medical research or other humanitarian actions, which have a less risk involved.
Final Thoughts …
The potential rewards of asteroid mining are lucrative and could revolutionise mankind by the development of a space industry and drastic global economic growth. The extravagant initial cost of required investment will lead to the inevitable privatisation of the space industry. Privatisation of such an influential industry can lead to a global monopoly of resources while violating the Outer Space Treaty, breaking international law.
Is asteroid mining the future, or will we end up like the dinosaurs?
We are for asteroid mining.