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How to mine space for resources without burning through the solar system

By Elizabeth Rayne
NASA image of asteroid mining

Space is hiding an entire universe of untapped resources, especially when humans are using up whatever we have on Earth unnervingly fast — but how far can we go before we burn through the solar system?

It might seem hyper-futuristic, but this is a question of ethics just as much as climate change and pollution. Iron is the most coveted resource outside Earth. However, Martin Elvis of Harvard & Smithsonian’s Center for Astrophysics and Tony Milligan of King’s College recently published a study in Acta Astronautica arguing that Earthlings should mine no more than one-eighth of bodies in the solar system we can actually land on, giving the off-limits sanctity reserved for a nature reserve to 85% of it.

“One eighth of the iron in the asteroid belt is more than a million times greater than all of the Earth's currently estimated iron ore reserves, and it may well suffice for centuries,” Elvis and Milligan argued. “A limit of some sort is necessary because of the problems associated with exponential growth.”

Think back to high school history and the Industrial Revolution. Our planet’s economy may have boomed, but at the cost of massive amounts of natural resources. What seems impossible really could happen if iron production keeps doubling every year as it does on Earth. From 1994 to 2016, iron production shot up from 1 billion tons to 2.2 billion. If there is such a spike in a space economy, we could mine the solar system dry of iron, water, and other resources in as little as 500 years.

If humanity keeps that up after we venture to lunar and Martian territory, as well as other nearby planets, moons, and asteroids, we could be looking at depletion of the one-eighth that Elvis and Milligan hypothetically set aside. The upside is that there is a million times more iron ore in an eighth of the asteroid belt than on Earth. The downside is that we have the potential to plow through it in just 400 years, a prospect that is especially grim.

So, is legislation needed here? There is no explicit statement about that in the study, but depending on how you see it, some of the implications made could be going there.

“The rationale for adopting the one-eighth principle so far in advance is that it may be far easier to implement in-principle restrictions at an early stage, rather than later, when vested and competing interests have come into existence under conditions of diminishing opportunity,” said the authors.

At least we’re still in the process of figuring out the whole asteroid and moon mining thing for now, and digging up anything from Mars besides lab samples still lies in the distant horizon. But it still is something we need to seriously think about if our species intends to take industry beyond terra firma.