Monday, September 25, 2017

The Prospect of Space Prospecting

Isaac Asimov's sci-fi story "Catch That Rabbit," published in 1944, is set in an asteroid mine and portrays what might happen if formerly obedient robots decided to rebel.  These days, Asimov's dream of space mining is a lot closer to reality, with several firms making definite plans to launch exploratory vehicles around 2020 and have full-scale mining up and running later in the decade.  But as an article in October's Scientific American points out, the legal status of space mining is by no means clear. 

It still costs a lot to put anything into space, or to bring it back, for that matter.  So instead of being enticed by visions of extraterrestrial gold and diamonds, space-mining companies have their eyes on more prosaic materials that could be extracted from asteroids:  water for either human consumption or conversion into convenient rocket fuels such as hydrogen and oxygen, iron and refractory materials for construction, and other useful but bulky and heavy stuff that becomes very expensive to lug into space from Earth.  The idea is to extract enough materials from an asteroid to allow space-based operations that are supplied by space resources, rather than having to bring everything along with you.  Such space-based resupply stations will be necessary for any space exploration much beyond what we've attempted so far. 

That is well and good, but there's a little thing called the 1967 Outer Space Treaty standing in the way.  Almost 100 states (including the U. S., Russia, and China) have signed this agreement, which forbids colonization or use of space for military operations.  The key phrase in the treaty bans "national appropriation" of celestial bodies such as asteroids.  That means, for instance, you couldn't just hitch an asteroid to your spacecraft and drag it back home behind you.  Russia, for examples, interprets this phrase as prohibiting space mining.

On the other hand, U. S. companies argue that the international laws of the sea prohibit appropriation of international waters, but allow certain kinds of exploitation such as fishing and offshore drilling, although there's only an analogy between space law and sea law.  The real problem is that the 1967 agreement didn't address space mining in any detail.  Clearly, a new agreement would be nice to negotiate, but something called the Moon Agreement ran into opposition a few years ago and remains mostly unratified.  So countries aren't in the mood to sign away any rights to asteroids right now. 

It's rather disquieting to compare the current situation to, say, the way things were in Europe in the 1400s when expeditions to the New World were just beginning.  Right now, it's hard to imagine that anything going on at an asteroid or two would have significant consequences for the history of the Earth.  But few people were expecting that the voyages of an eccentric guy named Columbus would amount to much either. 

If one imagines a scenario in which space travel becomes highly valued for some reason, then space mining would suddenly take on a new and vital aspect.  There is already among some space-minded people an attitude that says our days on Earth are numbered, not only individually but collectively.  That is to say, just as America served as a place to make a new start for many who found Europe not to their liking for various reasons, the idea of space colonization (the Outer Space Treaty notwithstanding) serves as a kind of secular Paradise for people who have given up on the hope that we can agree to live here on Earth peacably and without trashing it beyond repair. 

So suppose a kind of abandon-ship mentality spreads among the elite and wealthy of many nations, and a keen competition arises to see who can manage to leave the sinking vessel the fastest.  Unless somebody invents a Star-Trek-type warp drive soon, space mining will be a necessary part of any large-scale space travel.  And one can easily imagine the powerful of different nations coming to blows over who gets to mine which asteroid.  After all, it's not that easy to sneak around in space, so covert operations are out.  Everybody would know what everybody else is doing, and things could get really ugly.

Not that they're real attractive right now.  I admit that in the present shape of world politics and affairs, a little thing like space mining is way down the priority list.  But there is still time now to examine the question dispassionately before vested interests get into the act and try to hijack the discussion in their favor.  Presently there are no significant vested interests out in space—no mines, no rockets heading out to do space mining, and only plans to do so yet.  I am generally no fan of the United Nations, but it seems like that would be a good forum in which to breach the subject of space mining and how plans could be coordinated so that if humankind does eventually decide to move into space in a major way, we could at least agree on the means and resources to make it possible and how to share them. 

But achieving a united vision of such prospects requires a type of diplomacy and leadership that is currently in short supply.  It may be that there will be a better time in the future to hash out an international agreement about space mining than now.  But as private space companies make more technical progress, the legal situation will either have to keep up with them or deal with the technology as it happens.  That won't be the first time—I don't think Columbus got a nicely notarized clear title to land he claimed for Spain, at least not from the folks whose land he was claiming.  And if you're thinking of investing in a space-mining company soon, be aware that there might be a few legal problems ahead.

Sources:  "Space Prospecting" by Jesse Dunietz appeared on pp. 14-16 of the October 2017 issue of Scientific American.  I also referred to an article in LiveScience at that refers to Asimov's story, and to the New World Encyclopedia's article on the Spanish Empire at

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