Copyright 2019, Khannea Sun Tzu, article may be used with attribution
It is likely certain corporations and governments are well on our way to mining asteroids before 2050. Once asteroid mining commences in earnest, it will grow exponentially and change from a very riskprone, trial-and-error, erratic profit and small scale industry to a highly predictable, casual, well tested and insanely profitable industry in decades. The problem with exponentially expanding industries is that politicians, corporations, investers and scientists enter a peculiar insanity driven by profit margins we have not seen before on this planet. It may eventually turn out that industrial exploitation of space-based resources expands to a degree that corporate entities lose most interest in investing in terrestrial resources or markets, and that is a long term problem in its own right.
But short term, in the second and third stages of asteroid mining we are very likely to see corporations cut corners and enter a sort of feeding frenzy for select resources and ores, and use other asteroid resources in a particularly (and arguably criminally) wasteful manner. We have seen the same attritional ‘business models’ in the conquest of the americas where bison skulls were used as fertillizer in a manner we can in retrospect judge to be criminal, immoral, insane and severely lacking any longterm vision.
Near earth space is unlike any frontier we have ever tried conquering. The natural intuitions humans have evolved to deal with hunter-gatherer existence on an african savanne are certain to be quite inadequate compared to vacuum, highly radiated, highly temperature variation, free fall, extreme toxicity, extreme distances, extreme investment tresholds, extreme profit margins environment. To profit from these resources it in the initial stages it makes sense to use the most ruthless approach imaginable.
For instance – there’s a lot of water (and other volatiles) in most asteroids and this water exists as a composite of clays inside the asteroids in a semi-frozen state. By heating the asteroid insides these volatile substances can be extracted. Water is likely to be extremely valuable for colonizing space in a long term sustainable manner, but clearly the same water can also be collected in the early decades of asteroid mining to blow up parts of asteroid gravel piles. This yields two moral problems
1 – the water used in that manner escapes in to space and is carried out of the solar system via solar radiation, and
2 – this, and other ‘ruthless’ means of extracting resources is very likely to produce significant debris/particle clouds in interplanetary space.
It may seem inconceivable that water would be wasted in this manner, and likewise it may seem inconceivable that “debris clouds” would be a problem in the vastness of space. It is right now very difficult to estimate the impact of just these two problems of (1) wasting precious resources in the short term we may desperately need in long term development and (2) haphazzardly dumping a kind of particle pollution in interplanetary space that may pose long term hazards for follow-up missions. But as asteroid mining heats up we may see an exponential number of each every more cutthroat competetive and immorally shortsighted missions tearing up asteroids. This won’t be a problem when we are doing small missions to a few asteroids, but imagine half a century later when we see tens of thousands of very sizable missions actively digging in tens of thousands of asteroids anually and everyone can see the ensuing problems for consecutive spaceflight. We surely do not want an accidental kessler syndrome around the earth moon system, so we most certainly do not want to induce a slow-motion interplanetary kessler syndrome in the inner solar system and asteroid belt.
We can not stop all cutting corners. But the international community can determine that certain cost cutting and ruthless strategies for asteroid colonization to be objectionable for long term development of very large, and relatively fragile infrastructure (or real estate) in the inner solar system. It would be tragic if an exponential development of hundreds or thousands of O’Neill habitats, each potentially housing many thousands to ten thousands of highly educated, very affluent, highly productive tax paying and voting constituents were needlessly aborted because of the shortsighted nature of some corporate revenue extraction models.
Currently there is no viable legislative, legal or political model to impede such practices, so we end up with certain nations more or less dictating terms, with everyone else more or less consenting out of docility, short sighted naivety, or poltical expediency. The problem is that afore alluded to nations do not have a stellar record on yielding particularly long-term oriented business practices.
There is an immediate solution however – governments and corporations trading resources from space (moons, asteroids, comets, planets or otherwise) can be taxed for offering these goods, and we can make taxation dependent in large part on the sustainability of the extraction methods they use.
It would be wise for governments to come to understand the potential impact of asteroid mining, the technologies and sciences involved and have specialists in these fields prepare a cursory legislative framework to avoid disasters down the line.