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 https://www.livescience.com/19862-asteroid-mining-fiction-present.html
that refers to Asimov’s story, and to the New World Encyclopedia’s article on
the Spanish Empire at
http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Spanish_Empire.



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