Support the news

Will Mining Celestial Bodies Ruin Space?

Joelle Renstrom: "Will wars over resources relocate to space? In the race to turn billions into trillions, will the rich hammer flags into asteroids and planets to claim them?" Pictured: Ceres, a dwarf planet located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. On Wednesday, November 25, 2015, President Obama signed the Asteroid Resources Property Rights Act, clearing the way for mining in space. (NASA via AP)MoreCloseclosemore
Joelle Renstrom: "Will wars over resources relocate to space? In the race to turn billions into trillions, will the rich hammer flags into asteroids and planets to claim them?" Pictured: Ceres, a dwarf planet located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. On Wednesday, November 25, 2015, President Obama signed the Asteroid Resources Property Rights Act, clearing the way for mining in space. (NASA via AP)

Last month, President Obama signed into law the Asteroid Resources Property Rights Acts, which means that American citizens can “engage in commercial exploration for and commercial recovery of space resources free from harmful interference.”

The bill defines space resources as non-terrestrial, non-biological assets, including water and minerals. Specifically, it refers to resources found on asteroids, which companies such as Planetary Resources will soon mine. The signing of this bill has been met with applause those whose sights have long been set on making fortunes from cosmic companies. In the long run, this bill may make the ruination of space more likely.

Once the technology and resources are in place, other companies from the U.S. and elsewhere will join them in the hunt for viable, resource-rich asteroids. And then what?

Our solar system has three types of asteroids: C-type (carbonaceous), S-type (silicaceous), and M-type (metallic). Most near-Earth asteroids are S-type, composed primarily of rock, and are probably the least useful for mining. C-type asteroids, the most common type, contain vast quantities of water, which could prove useful both in space and on Earth. Ceres, the largest asteroid yet discovered, may harbor more fresh water than our entire planet.

Scientists believe M-type asteroids are remnants of ancient cosmic collisions that stripped them down to their dense, metallic cores. This type of asteroid contains immeasurable wealth in the form of iron, nickel, gold, cobalt, rare earth elements (a market currently controlled by China) and vast quantities of platinum. (It’s possible that up to 7,500 tons of platinum -- $150 billion worth — could be extracted from a single M-type asteroid).

Most asteroids reside relatively close by in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, and they have manageable gravitational fields. Given all of this, why wouldn’t we mine them?

We could certainly use these resources on Earth — especially water, if catastrophic drought predictions are accurate. Of course, asteroid mining companies that sell water to the rest of the world would need to be regulated, but that’s not really a new proposition. As with oil and gas companies, extracting, processing and selling water could promote worldwide competition and boost the economy. But how, exactly, would that competition work?

Planetary Resources might be the first asteroid mining company, but it won’t be the last. Once the technology and resources are in place, other companies from the U.S. and elsewhere will join them in the hunt for viable, resource-rich asteroids. And then what?

Earth has a history of oil crises, embargoes and conflicts. What’s to prevent similar clashes from arising in space?

Perhaps enough asteroids exist to keep companies from various countries out of each other’s way if they can’t share. But the situation could get tricky, especially because the asteroids themselves would remain sovereign territory, as dictated by the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. The new law makes clear its consistency with this Treaty: “the United States does not thereby assert sovereignty or sovereign or exclusive rights or jurisdiction over, or the ownership of, any celestial body.”

So no one would own the asteroids, but people would own the spoils. Would other countries recognize that? Would we recognize it if a Chinese or Russian company found a stockpile of platinum on an asteroid? Would asteroid mining become a first-come, first-served proposition?

The Asteroid Resources Property Act also paves the way for resource exploitation on planets, such as Mars. One of the primary arguments made for colonizing the Red Planet is its resources. Mars Society founder and colonization advocate Robert Zubrin argues that Mars “is endowed with all the resources needed to support not only life but the actual development of a technological civilization.” These resources include water, carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen and deuterium, a rare (on Earth) and valuable hydrogen isotope used to make rocket fuel. As such endeavors become more feasible, their implications raise some slippery-slope fears -- namely, that in addition to lifeless asteroids, planets with the potential for microbial life such as Mars may become competitive mining stations.

Neil deGrasse Tyson predicts that the “first trillionaire there will ever be is the person who exploits the natural resources on asteroids.” Co-founder of Planetary Resources Peter Diamandis agrees, and in his TED talk, he makes it clear that he intends to be such a trillionaire. Of the three reasons he cites for space exploration, “the weakest...is curiosity,” and the strongest is wealth.

“For the first time ever,” Diamandis argues, “we have enough wealth concentrated in the hands of few individuals and the technology accessible that will allow us to really drive space exploration.” Space exploration sounds great. Space exploration driven by a few wealthy individuals, however, may only be great for those individuals. Move over, oil tycoons.

Earth has a history of oil crises, embargoes and conflicts. What’s to prevent similar clashes from arising in space?

Though the recent law recognizes the sovereignty of celestial bodies, how long will it take for one of these wealthy individuals or companies to challenge that? When he talks about the future of commercial space tourism and transportation, Diamandis says, “we're going to stockpile some fuel, make a beeline for the moon and grab some real estate.” While the statement is a bit tongue-in-cheek, the idea is both prophetic and worrisome.

Will wars over resources relocate to space? In the race to turn billions into trillions, will the rich hammer flags into asteroids and planets to claim them? It may be naïve and idealistic, but space’s greatest value is to remind us that all humans, regardless of class, color or affiliation, come from the same place. Our terrestrial borders, boundaries and differences disappear when looking at Earth from space. Asteroid mining -- and everything poised to follow -- may change that. Either way, it will provide us an opportunity to demonstrate what, if anything, we’ve learned here on Earth.

Related:

Joelle Renstrom Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Joelle Renstrom teaches writing at Boston University. She is the author of a collection of essays, "Closing the Book: Travels in Life, Loss, and Literature."

More…

+Join the discussion
TwitterfacebookEmail

Support the news