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Space holds an abundance of gifts for the human race. It indulges our big questions - are we alone, and if we’re not, what are they like? It supports our hope to understand more about our existence by studying the entity that holds all known life forms within it.
In 1838, Friedrich Bessel made the first correct measurement of the distance between us and another star (10 light-years between us and 61 Cygni), which solidified the universe’s demand for respect from us, a population who turned out to represent such an insignificant portion of the universe.
A Gift from Space
Space offers us a solution to our increased demand for depleting resources, a resolution to result in life being sustained on our planet for centuries to come. As the global appetite for tech and gadgets steadily increases, as does our need for the components that create them, rare earth metals. In its name, we understand that there are a limited amount of these necessary elements on earth. With technology being essential to our society’s future, and with earth’s resources being depleted, alternatives are being improvised.
A plethora of precious metals exist in space, and with the strides that have been taken in the field of technology over recent decades, investors, start-ups, and scientists are banking on space mining taking over from earth’s mining industry. In the asteroid belt alone, there is an estimated astronomical $700 billion worth of mineral wealth.
Industry experts are gearing up for what has been coined the gold rush of the 21st century. It has been suggested that taking mining into space could not only provide us with an extensive source of desired minerals, but it could also save our planet from the harmful effects of the mining industry, which is characterized by exploitation of human workers and a myriad of environmental costs.
Bringing metals from space down to earth could facilitate the development of the use of renewable energy sources. Solar panels, for example, require precious metals such as neodymium, electronic indium, and silver, and hydrogen-powered cars rely on platinum for their catalytic converters. Gaining access to an abundant source could boost the uptake renewable clean energy alternatives.
Current mining targets are the moon, near-earth asteroids, the asteroid belt, Jupiter. Steps are already in place, and next year a UK-based Asteroid Mining Company plans to send out spacecraft to survey near-Earth asteroids in search of water. The plan would be to use solar power to convert water into its components in order to access pure hydrogen, which can be used as rocket fuel or sent down to earth.
The infrastructure is already being set to support space mining. Millions are being invested each year into companies planning to commercialize space, and global governments are passing laws concerning the rights of owning pieces of space. Last year a law was passed in Luxembourg that pertains to the exploit of resources in space by private companies. The law basically gives companies the green light to take and claim ownership of whatever resources they claim from space, fuelling confidence in this industry, which is already at the cusp of a boom.
However, not everyone is convinced that mining in space would be a solution to our problems, rather that it would catalyze new ones. It is predicted that space mining could have a negative impact on the world’s economy. Flooding the market with metals that were previously in limited supply would undoubtedly change their value, and the markets would rapidly change.
In 2014, an experiment was set up to test this, where students took place in a role-playing game to mimic this scenario, its results demonstrated that disruption to the global economy might be an inevitable outcome of space mining.
Industry thought leaders are advising that it is time to consider protecting the universe from human exploitation. It has been suggested that 85% of space should be protected as “wilderness” not to be touched by human interference. Calculations predict that if the growth of the space economy resembles that of the industrial revolution, we could be responsible for turning our universe into a barren wasteland in just 500 years time. This prediction illustrates why some are keen to act now to prevent catastrophe.