In the not so distant future, for-profit space-mining companies (like Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries) will be collaborating with NASA to send out tiny satellites to measure and assess cosmic debris, harvesting lucrative options. But just because we can start mining in space, does that mean we should? Ramin Skibba, an astrophysicist and space enthusiastic, explores at Nautilus.
The Space Act, passed in 2015, authorized the U.S. president “to facilitate the commercial exploration and utilization of space resources to meet national needs.” Earlier international laws warned against it: the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, and later, the 1979 Moon Agreement, forbid nations on Earth to claim to cosmic resources. Though today’s major space-faring nations are not among the small list of countries that signed the treaty, competing over natural resources could lead to conflicts.
Imagine, for instance, an asteroid that contains as many platinum-group metals as all reserves on Earth. Businesses will compete for the precious resource, and the competing may soon turn into battle by armed satellites, which can lead back to conflicts on Earth. The act of mining itself could also be dangerous: if space-mining break up asteroids, it could harm other satellites, spacecrafts and astronauts.
Commerical space mining could lead to conflicts between profitability and public interest. “Once you’re on board with the commercial space industry, then you as a researcher must accept, if not support, everything that comes with it,” Skibba writes. “To succeed, these businesses will seek profitable missions, while science, exploration, and discovery—goals that stimulate public interest—will inevitably have lower priority,”
The solution, according to Skibba, is to treat outer space as we do Antarctica: a place to encourage scientific investigation and discourage territorial claims. It’s a commendable idea, but is it likely? Last week, President Trump has already suggested the idea of adding a “Space Force” to the military. According to The Independent, “experts have warned that space will be increasingly contested in years to come, as increasingly complex weapons are built and more opportunities are opened up for exploring the area outside the Earth.”