The Fantasy that is Space Mining
You may or may not have heard of “space mining”. The first image that may come to your mind is big machines drilling deep into the Moon, and the next you know the orbital force has come undone and humans have managed to not only ruin the balance of Earth’s system but the entire solar system as well. Well, rest assured, this is not the case; space mining is, in simple terms, the sending of miners out to space in order to gather high demand resources from minor planets and the 16,000 asteroids that share our orbit, to meet the needs of our own economy. Sounds great, right? Gold no longer becomes a rarity; you can now afford those rose gold Pandora earrings! And the next thing you know, your posh roommate has changed her monthly Evian orders to bottled water sourced from the Moon’s ice!
(Source: SQ Magazine)
Aside from the aforementioned recreational uses of the great universe’s resources, there will be major advances in industries such as 3D printing, 3D bioprinting, and machinery in general. Space mining promises the retrieval of expensive metals such as gold and platinum, as well as metals used in technology. In the soil of the Moon and asteroids are iron, silicon, and aluminium - materials vital to your laptop or phone to function. As these materials become increasingly accessible, they also become more affordable and so more companies around the world can utilize them. Since this means more factors of production, this leads to potential economic growth. It also means an increased rate of global innovation, increasing capital investment and leading to higher living standards. Hypothetically, it could speed up the modernization of the technological world.
As well as taking resources from space, scientists are proposing that we move our factories into space in order to eliminate small errors. This would seem vital for 3D bioprinting when replicating a human organ. The idea is that the absence of the Earth’s strong gravitational force will remove any signal disruptions to the machinery. This could lead to major medical advances and perhaps longer life expectancies.
A Different Target
(Source: Daily Mail)
Surprisingly, corporations who have already invested in space mining are more concerned about water, than metals. Deep Space Industries believe that “water will fuel the future”, as it supports human agriculture, sanitation, and radiation shielding. To quote Kris Zacny of HoneyBee Robotics, "In the desert, what's worth more: a kilogram of gold or a kilogram of water?”
The Planetary Resources company estimates that there are two trillion tonnes of water to be sourced from the asteroids near the Earth alone. This statistic becomes extremely exciting when it is revealed that splitting the water creates oxygen and hydrogen, which (the hydrogen) can be used to power spacecrafts. This opens the question: what else can we use hydrogen to power? Is it possible that this could be the solution the problems caused by overconsumption?
So, what is going to happen?
Unfortunately, I have put the word “fantasy” in the title for a reason. The practicality and sustainability of this operation are all but clear. Deep Space Industries plans to send tiny programmed “scouts” up to the asteroids, but how can we assure these scouts will be properly disposed of when they inevitably malfunction? How can we be sure this won’t be a failed experiment and lead to an increased frequency of space debris? And speaking on more ethical terms, is it ethical to expand our reach from our own planet’s natural resources and exploit those of other planets simply because we believe (or choose to believe) there is no life? There are an infinite number of questions, of which can be boiled down to two themes: consequences, and ethics.
Perhaps the most important consequence is the politics. Oh, we love politics. You might remember learning about the race to “claim” Antarctica, followed by the ongoing discussion of whos scientists can observe where, and other concerns such as what species can be removed. The reality is, no one can claim ownership of the Moon, or anything in space for that matter (at least not yet). Will the whole operation be on a first come first serve basis? How can we be sure that the countries involved will abide by the rules?
Space mining promises many exciting opportunities, and perhaps can help increase the allocative efficiency of countries; however, those involved must be very watchful of how much they take, and how much they promise to give.