2019-05-13 23:45:15 UTC
(This is at the core of so many sci-fi books
((and even the recent TV series MARS))
what is the proper balance, between science, and productivity?)
Protect solar system from mining 'gold rush', say scientists
Proposal calls for wilderness protection as startup space miners look to
Ian Sample Science editor
Sun 12 May 2019 13.24 EDT Last modified on Sun 12 May 2019 15.45 EDT
Alien film shuttle craft
Interplanetary mining, as envisaged in the film Alien (1979).
Photograph: 20th Century Fox/Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock
Great swathes of the solar system should be preserved as official “space
wilderness” to protect planets, moons and other heavenly bodies from
rampant mining and other forms of industrial exploitation, scientists say.
The proposal calls for more than 85% of the solar system to be placed
off-limits to human development, leaving little more than an eighth for
space firms to mine for precious metals, minerals and other valuable
While the limit would protect pristine worlds from the worst excesses of
human activity, its primary goal is to ensure that humanity avoids a
catastrophic future in which all of the resources within its reach are
permanently used up.
“If we don’t think about this now, we will go ahead as we always have,
and in a few hundred years we will face an extreme crisis, much worse
than we have on Earth now,” said Martin Elvis, a senior astrophysicist
at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge,
Massachusetts. “Once you’ve exploited the solar system, there’s nowhere
left to go.”
Fledgling space mining companies have set their sights on trillions of
pounds worth of iron and precious metals locked up in asteroids, along
with valuable minerals and trillions of tonnes of water on the moon. In
Britain, the Asteroid Mining Corporation hopes to send a satellite into
orbit in the coming years to prospect for nearby asteroids.
Precious metals such as platinum and gold could be ferried back to
Earth, but much of the mined material would be used in space to build
habitats on the moon and make rocket fuel. The European Space Agency has
plans for a moon village that foresees buildings and equipment installed
on the lunar surface. Meanwhile water ice, such as that beneath the
lunar poles, can be split into hydrogen and oxygen and used to make fuel
for probes that launch from space instead of Earth.
How would asteroid mining work? A visual guide
Working with Tony Milligan, a philosopher at King’s College London,
Elvis analysed how soon humans might use up the solar system’s most
accessible resources should space mining take off. They found that an
annual growth rate of 3.5% would use up an eighth of the solar system’s
realistic resources in 400 years. At that point, humanity would have
only 60 years to apply the brakes and avoid exhausting the supply
Because humans might struggle to mine the sun, or extract useful
materials from Jupiter, a gas giant with more mass than the rest of the
solar system’s planets combined, the researchers see asteroids, the
moon, Mars and other rocky planets as the most realistic targets for
space miners. Elvis points out that one eighth of the iron in the
asteroid belt is more than a million times greater that the estimated
iron ore reserves on Earth, which may suffice for centuries.
Expert debate: should there be a space race to mine asteroids?
But which areas to protect from mining is a nuanced decision, the
scientists write in a forthcoming issue of Acta Astronautica. The Valles
Marineris on Mars, the largest canyon in the solar system, might deserve
protection as much as the Grand Canyon is protected on Earth. But there
are other sites too, said Elvis. “Do we want cities on the near side of
the moon that light up at night? Would that be inspiring or horrifying?
And what about the rings of Saturn? They are beautiful, almost pure
water ice. Is it OK to mine those so that in 100 years they are gone?”
“If everything goes right, we could be sending our first mining missions
into space within 10 years,” he added. “Once it starts and somebody
makes an enormous profit, there will be the equivalent of a gold rush.
We need to take it seriously.”