“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,” said Martin Elvis, a senior astrophysicist at the Harvard Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, about the emerging space mining industry that has set their sights on trillions of pounds worth of iron and precious metals in our near Solar System.
Deciding which “wilderness areas” of our Solar System to protect “is a nuanced decision,” writes Elvis and colleague Tony Milligan, a philosopher at King’s College London, 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.”
“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,” Elvis added referring to emerging space-mining firms like the US Planetary Resource and Great Britain’s Asteroid Mining Corporation. “Once it starts and somebody makes an enormous profit, there will be the equivalent of a gold rush. We need to take it seriously.”
In 2018, The Daily Galaxy reported that Elvis sounded the alarm of how an unfriendly power – the Chinese for example – could seize control of an important piece of lunar real estate. They could do it legally by exploiting provisions of the Outer Space Treaty, that bars any nation — and by extension, corporation — from owning property on a celestial body, but a loophole in the pact may amount to the same thing, warned Elvis.
The real estate in question are the so-called “peaks of eternal light” around the permanently shadowed craters at the Lunar South Pole. Unlike the Earth, which is tilted so the poles are in six months of darkness and six months of light, the moon is almost perfectly aligned with its orbit around the sun. Because of the way the moon tilts, these peaks are bathed in sunlight for most if not all of the time, which means you can have an almost continuous power supply, ideal for a photovoltaic power station.
Thus this part of the moon would be perfect places to erect solar power stations that would support mining operations in the nearby craters, where water and other valuable resources such as Helium 3 have been deposited over billions of years.
Elvis said that provisions in the treaty allow nations to exploit resources, including through establishing research stations, and bar others from disrupting such endeavors. In some cases, this could amount to de facto ownership, Elvis said. As China and Japan plan moon landings, and corporate leaders eye their own space ventures, the loophole has gained in importance.
In 2012, Planetary Resources, Inc., the asteroid mining company, announced an agreement with Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic’s “Launcher One” to provide launch capability for the Arkyd series of robotic low-Earth orbit (LEO) space telescopes for the exploration and commercial development of Near-Earth Asteroids
As a possible precursor to future commercial efforts, NASA is planning to launch a spacecraft in 2022, which is due to arrive at an asteroid named Psyche (image above) in 2026. More than 95 percent of Psyche appears to be made of iron, nickel, and other metals such as gold, platinum and copper. While NASA has no plans to bring the massive asteroid home and lacks the technology to mine it, the agency calculates that the iron in 16 Psyche would be worth $10,000 quadrillion.
Beyond Psyche, 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.
“Space mining might become a new engine for the global economy,” said Li Mingtao, a researcher at the National Space Science Center under the Chinese Academy of Sciences who, along with a group of Chinese scientists, are mulling a bold plan to capture a small near-Earth asteroid, more than 100 million km away, about 6.4 meters in diameter, that weighs several hundred tons.
“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 Harvard’s Elvis. “Once you’ve exploited the solar system, there’s nowhere left to go.”
Working with Tony Milligan, a philosopher at King’s College London, Elvis proposes that huge swathes of the solar system should be preserved as official “space wilderness” protecting planets, moons and other heavenly bodies from rampant mining and industrial exploitation by placing 85% of the solar system off-limits to human development, leaving little more than an eighth for space firms to mine, writes science editor Ian Sample in today’s The Guardian. The team analyzed 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 completely, reports Sample.