Asteroid mining could unlock unprecedented riches and thorny ethical issues. Are we ready when we race to the launch pad?
Asteroid mining could unlock unprecedented riches and thorny ethical issues. Are we ready when we race to the launch pad? Asteroid mining is coming faster than people realize. Several asteroid mining companies have developed serious business cases. Demonstration missions could take place within a few years for interested, patient and well-funded investors.
The most ardent proponents of asteroid mining suggest it could unlock trillions of dollars in wealth; more sober analysts: tens of billions.
Space resources are sometimes compared to those of the sea. But the barrier to ocean entry is a fishing rod or net or the ability to dive. Asteroid mining, on the other hand, requires advanced technology and large amounts of seed capital.
The level of wealth required to pursue an asteroid mining venture is concentrated in the hands of a very small number of people. There are big differences between those who can benefit from the resources and those who are most at risk of being harmed by exploitation.
It also seems possible, if not likely, that the first successes in asteroid mining will be the only successes. Competition with established companies will create an additional barrier and a monopoly or cartel may develop.
Daniel Pilchman, a philosopher of law, says mining asteroids will likely increase inequality on Earth. He argues that it will therefore be an unethical practice unless it can be regulated to bring benefits to all. James Schwartz, also a philosopher, says mining asteroids is unlikely to “significantly improve the well-being of the average human,” and would be unethical by extension. He assumes those resources would be used to support space-based needs rather than Earth-based, a conclusion not everyone agrees.
Cosmologist Aparna Venkatesan says indigenous knowledge and mainstream astronomy must be integrated to avoid “extending the mindset of colonialism to a truly cosmic scale.” This colonialism mindset is closely intertwined with many of the stated motivations for the exploitation of space resources and the ability to equip human expansion in the solar system.
Many other space scientists argue that it is “critical that ethics and anti-colonial practices are a central consideration in protecting the planet”. They recommend that the space science community consider the ethics of planetary missions to examine questions such as the “preservation of environments on planetary bodies”, the “long-term environmental impacts of resource extraction on planetary bodies” and the “short-term impact from largely rampant resource extraction to wealth inequality”.
This legacy of colonialist decision-making that has harmed indigenous peoples throughout history has left a stain on the mining profession — a legacy that space miners should avoid. For example, the mining workforce is aging, in part due to the challenge of attracting young workers who are more environmentally friendly than the previous generation. Environmental impact assessments, now a standard part of the approval process for many new large-scale mines, can be applied to asteroid mining. Mining companies are increasingly concerned about obtaining a ‘social license to operate’ from local stakeholders, who will stop mining with strikes and blockades if they are dissatisfied.
Asteroid mining may not harm humans in a manner similar to terrestrial mining, but disturbance and dust from mining activities is still possible. Physicist Paul Wiegert was studying the spread of dust when NASA and the European Space Agency attempted to push the asteroid Didymos to test an asteroid impact prevention system. He concluded that while the released dust and debris did not pose a threat to Earth, mining activities could plausibly generate much such debris.
On the other side of whether it is ethical to mine asteroids is whether it is ethical to leave a huge amount of resources untouched. Resources that can be useful for things like green energy and large-scale agriculture. Asteroid sources are unlikely to harbor life, while the only planetary body with known life in the solar system, Earth, continues to be exploited. Weighing these ethical issues may become necessary in the face of climate change and ecosystem collapse. Planetary scientist Philip Metzger argues that mining in space will provide solutions to Earth’s increasing energy demands that are currently unfeasible, such as radiating solar energy to Earth via microwaves.
The United Nations believes that space exploration should be in everyone’s interest. It is reasonable that society, which is asked to fund investments in enabling technologies, asks in return not only for a lack of damage from asteroid mining, but also for a fair share of the positive benefits that are achieved.
Space science is often praised for its ability to inspire future generations. That inspiration can cut both ways: how people act as they take these steps in the cosmos will set precedents for generations to follow or have to undo. The question is not only how we can make technical progress, but also whether we should.
By Andrew S. Rivkin, Johns Hopkins University