Space exploration is hitting its stride, making the prospect of space mining and other types of industrial activity very likely possibilities in the near future.
To avoid the exploitation of the still-pristine worlds beyond Earth — which could lead to the total exhaustion of all the resources within humanity's reach — scientists are proposing to limit the expanse of space that space firms could gain access to.
Human Activity In Space Should Be Limited, Says Scientists
According to The Guardian, the proposal calls for 85 percent of the solar system to be off-limits to industrial activities and human development, which would leave just over one-eighth of space available for mining.
"If we don't think about this now, we will go ahead as we always have, and in a few hundred years we will face an extreme crisis, much worse than we have on Earth now," Martin Elvis of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory explained. "Once you've exploited the solar system, there's nowhere left to go."
In a paper published in Acta Astronautica, Elvis and philosopher Tony Milligan from the King's College London worked out how long it would take for humans to consume all of the most accessible resources in the solar system. With an annual growth rate of 3.5 percent in space mining, humans would use up about one-eighth of the resources in the solar system within just 400 years.
The authors pointed out that even limiting space mining to just one-eighth of the solar system would already yield humanity with an abundance of resources. After all, one-eighth of the iron in the asteroid belt is more than a million times greater than the Earth's iron reserves, which would be enough for humanity's needs for centuries.
It would be tricky to figure out which parts of space to protect and which ones to open to mining, but it's something that experts and decision-makers need to take seriously, according to the researchers.
With the way the industry is developing, Elvis predicted that humans could be off on the first mining missions in space within the next decade.
"Once it starts and somebody makes an enormous profit, there will be the equivalent of a gold rush," he continued. "We need to take it seriously."
About Space Mining
Space mining isn't quite happening yet, but it's got endless potential.
Asteroids aren't just lumps of rock speeding through space; some also contain a wealth of precious metals, such as nickel, cobalt, gold, and platinum, among others. In fact, an average-sized asteroid about a kilometer wide could hold up to 7,500 tons of platinum, which would be worth about $150 billion.
While some objects in the solar system remain difficult to access in the foreseeable future, including the sun and Jupiter, corporations could focus on more accessible targets: asteroids, the moon, and even Mars. Many of the resources, such as lunar water, would likely be used for rocket fuel as well as materials for building structures on the moon and elsewhere in space.
Among the major companies interested to enter the business of mining asteroids include Planetary Resources, Deep Space Industries, TransAstra Corporation, SpaceX, and many more.