The Problem With Asteroid Mining

Even if the technology to pull this off were ready, which it currently is not, are we really so eager to mark humanity’s first deep space expedition with an act of rapacious resource extraction?

Jan 23 2013, 4:28pm
The founders of Planetary Resources

Of course the prospect of deep space asteroid mining is exciting. The very fact that we’re entering the era where companies invest serious time and capital in the endeavor is enough to animate sci-fi-tinged visions of a future where space travel is so pedestrian that we’re hopping between asteroids and running corporations in zero gravity.

But let’s take a minute and consider the implications here—even if the technology to pull this off were ready, which it currently is not, are we really so eager to mark humanity’s first deep space expedition with an act of rapacious resource extraction? Is this the sort of precedent we want to set in kicking off our interplanetary exploits?

There are now officially not one but two high-profile asteroid mining outfits. Yesterday, Deep Space Industries announced its intent to compete with Planetary Resources, a company backed by Google money and lent panache by celebs like James Cameron. NASA is also thinking about landing on an asteroid, as we discovered last year during a trip to the sea lab where astronauts used to train for space, and has talked about deflecting them from collisions with Earth, and mining them for resources that can be used to power a trip to Mars.

Planetary Resources hopes to mine near-Earth asteroids for ore with robots, a la Asimov’s "Catch that Rabbit," presumably without all the automaton insubordination. Why would anyone bother with such a costly and outlandish venture, besides snagging the rights to the all-time best response to that cocktail party inquiry, ‘so what do you do?’

For the cold, hard cash, of course. Planetary’s initial press release noted that “Asteroids contain valuable and useful materials like iron, nickel, water, and rare platinum group metals, often in significantly higher concentration than found in mines on Earth.” Peter H. Diamandis, Planetary’s co-founder, claimed that a relatively small asteroid could hold $25-50 billion worth of platinum. Yeah, that’s with a B. These numbers are up for debate--there's still a lot we don't know about these near planetary objects--but according to Diamandis, if investors dropped $10 billion to develop an asteroid mining operation, the first rock it snagged could mean serious profits.

Deep Space Industries, meanwhile, is taking a different tack. It aims to forego the expensive—and as-of-now-technically-impossible—refining process and keep the materials made from the mined ore in the far-out black. Using technology that remains secret for now, DSI will build “microgravity foundries” on asteroids that will, apparently, use “nickel-charged gas to print metal components in zero gravity.” Yep, DSI wants to install 3D printers on asteroids.

The resource it harvests will be used primarily to build stuff in space however. DSI’s statement promises that "In a decade, "Deep Space will be harvesting asteroids for metals and other building materials, to construct large communications platforms to replace communications satellites, and later solar power stations to beam carbon-free energy to consumers on Earth."

Still not sold? Watch DSI’s pitch video, which was clearly cribbed from one of those parody ads in Starship Troopers:

“The frontier is coming, and our time is now.”

Maybe. But the tricky thing about frontiers is that they tend to be lawless places where people and environments are apt to be exploited if the proper precautions aren’t taken.

Space mining is no different. It’s easy to get swept away in the future dreams of shiny CGI autonomous asteroid miners and behemoth 3D printers and ore-collecting spaceships called ‘FireFly.’ And at the outset, all of this seems ethically unproblematic: asteroids are lifeless rocks hurling through space, and the mining targets far, far away from Earth, and nobody will care if we drill a few holes in ‘em and make off with their platinum and cobalt innards, right?

Well, sorry to be a deep space buzzkill here, but yeah, somebody might. There are, understandably, few laws governing deep space resource extraction at the moment, and both companies are operating under the assumption that near-earth asteroids are available on a first-come, first-serve basis. It’s pretty much the same attitude that we humanfolk have exuded throughout our charming history of plundering new unexplored and poorly understood locales, even if there aren’t any indigenous aliens to kick out in the process.

This drill-now, ask-questions-later approach could, first of all, feasibly disrupt an opportunity to complete a careful study of a new environment. Samples will be made available to scientists, but the profit motive could corrupt an opportunity to fully absorb new info about asteroids before we drop in the drill bit.

And forging ahead could eventually lead to serious tensions, decades or so down the line, if and when asteroid mining is a competitive industry (I know, right?). Because right now, there aren’t any rules.

“As far as law is concerned, there’s nothing inherently in the space treaties that prohibits this [mining] … But there are a heck of a lot of unanswered questions,” Henry Hertzfeld, a professor of space law (yes, this is now a real profession) at the Space Policy Institute, told Popular Science last year.

Right now, the minimal space governance that has been observed since we first started launching people into orbit has occurred under the auspices of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which bans establishing colonies “on the moon or other celestial bodies.” But technically, drilling is fair game. Planetary Resources and DSI wouldn’t be allowed to set up a space city on one of those asteroids, but they can (maybe) harvest them for profit.

And here’s how that would likely work:

Rich investors from rich companies living in rich countries will benefit first and foremost—asteroids may add “tens of billions” of dollars to the global GDP as Planetary Resources claims, but guess where most of that is going? Hint: the same place where profits from the sale of commodities have gone since the dawn of human civilization—the pockets of the 1%.

And, as the Engineering Ethics blog points out, there would be no way for the U.S. government to tax the profits unless it was able to declare jurisdiction of the asteroids being mined—which, fat chance, given the totally inadequate and mostly nonexistent regulatory framework.

So we’re setting up a situation wherein for-profit resource extraction companies are racing headlong into space against a competitive rival to see who can make out with the most profitable haul first, with no established rules of any kind governing what is and what isn’t a good idea to do with giant unknown interstellar objects. All of which seems like a pretty good way to set humanity upon a trajectory towards intergalactic space exploitation, amirite?

Remember what Stephen Hawking said about why we should probably be afraid of any aliens we might meet out there? “We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn't want to meet. I imagine they might exist in massive ships, having used up all the resources from their home planet. Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonize whatever planets they can reach."

Sound familiar? We are becoming Hawking’s aliens. Not content with the finite supply of materials on our planet, we’re searching out new celestial bodies to pillage. We are expanding the capitalist horizon into space, we are pushing the profit-motive beyond orbit.

Now, I’m not necessarily arguing that we should forever ban asteroid mining; there are useful outcomes of such an ordeal to be sure—I want solar space power beamed back to earth as much as the next guy. But we should for once attempt to buck the eager demons of our nature and try to decide how we’re going to go about regulating space mining. Who is liable should an ore-hauling spacecraft crash and burn upon re-entry? Who pays royalties on the space treasure, and how much, and to whom? Who is entitled to mine a given asteroid? Or should they be treated like the commons? Could we, as per the Lockean proviso, maybe find a way humankind could genuinely share the space loot?

You get the drift; let’s answer those questions first, and man the space-mines after we’re reasonably sure we can do so responsibly. In the meantime, I say we institute a space mining moratorium.

As we begin to enter space not for science but for cold, hard cash, it may be worth trying out a different approach. Soon, we may be setting one hell of a precedent for our next big foray into the solar system, and it would be good to get this one right.


Spaced Out: Inside NASA's Last Undersea Mission to Save Earth from an Asteroid

The Billionaires' Mystery Space Venture and the Finer Points of Asteroid Mining