Space Mining: Ethical Issues and Some Possible Solutions

Stephanie Meursing shares her ethics & society case study, which she completed as part of our Young Scientist Program.

Earth, the planet we have known for so long. The planet which fuels our every need. But with population increasing, with a prediction to be around 10 billion people by 2050, can the Earth sustain our needs? Many individuals think not. This fear has caused a boom of companies that can lead humankind into a new revolution. Companies such as Shackleton Energy Company (2007), Moon Express (2010), Planetary Resources (2012), Deep Space Industries (2013), Kepler Energy and Space Engineering (2014), LunaSonde (2017), and more. Each one of these companies are aiming to have some sort of stake in space mining. With certain resources dwindling space mining seems like a good option, one that I am wholeheartedly onboard for. However, there are many caveats and few answers. Ethical, economic, and political issues will all need to be solved. And solving them is no small task. This paper will underline some of the major issues and will try to offer some solutions.

The first ethical issue is who gets to be in charge of these Space Mining companies. If the companies govern themselves things could become chaotic and overly competitive. A non-biased, non-profit group should be in charge of governing and ruling over these companies. This group can help alleviate conflicts of interest, profiting, and operational issues. Each company who decides to embark on the journey of space mining must register with this group. Let’s give this group a name for the papers sake. Let’s call this group OSM: Overseers of Space Mining. The OSM could audit and have final operating decisions of any company, within reason of course. The OSM will be a universal group which means not bound to any one country.

The second ethical dilemma is who owns the asteroids or other mining bodies and how do you solve conflicts involving this. What will happen if two different companies want to mine the same asteroid because of the potential profit one could make? How could this dilemma be solved? Can a company actually own any part of space? These are all very complex questions. So, what would be the best way to determine property rights without companies getting into fights and becoming overly competitive for the best mining bodies? One way one to help alleviate a portion of this issue is for the companies to purchase a stake in each mining body. OSM could determine the mining bodies worth (similar to the website and have them purchase a specified stake amount based on estimated profit of the space mining body. A portion of that purchase could then be divvied up to all registered companies except for the stake purchaser. Doing this would allow for a more collaborative effort into space mining. Take for instance if a mining body is worth 83 billion and the estimated profit from mining is 30 billion then OSM could charge 50% of the estimated profit, before the mining operation has begun, to share amongst the other companies. This, in hypothesis, should keep companies from being too aggressive or overtaking the space mining industry.

Before even making it to actually start mining in space, shouldn’t there be laws agreed upon by all nations to handle all possible instances? If we assume space belongs to no one, how then can one nation allow a company to start mining without other nations agreeing to set laws first? If a group like OSM existed, and it signed an agreement with all nations to allow the start of space mining, then this would be a good start. Each nation would then have to agree upon a set of laws, very detailed laws, that each company who registers with OSM would have to abide by. Some laws that would be very powerful would be laws regarding how to solve the “what if two companies (or more) want to mine the same asteroid”. It is unethical to start mining before all nations have agreed to allow space mining and a detailed set of laws, treaties, and acts are extremely comprehensive and exceedingly public. Some laws, acts, and treaties are already in play, but are they enough? Some of these are the H.R.2262 – U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (Space Act) [1] and the Outer Space Treaty [2]. Hopefully more laws, treaties, and acts will come forward and all nations will come to an agreement on these.

Assuming that all the nations have agreed to the space mining journey, and all possible laws are created (except for unseen issues) and are expected to be followed, then space mining begins. Assuming mining operations are soon to begin, how do we protect space mining bodies and the Earth from negative contamination? What if some unexpected bacteria dwell in some water being mined off of an asteroid? How can we protect that bacteria’s habitat and how can we prevent contamination from occurring here on Earth? If the OMS group existed they would have to govern some law that helps prevent contamination. One way that could help prevent such a contamination here on Earth from happening, is if we would have one designated area to bring all mined resources through – running a number of tests before it leaves that area. Another way to test space mining bodies is to send a testing robot to space where it first scans the body and determines the likelihood of possible living bacteria and then test the space mining body (SMB) in multiple areas. The robot must go through a checklist of test before the SMB can be harvested for resources. The OSM could come up with this checklist.

Once the SMB’s are mined the next ethical issue is the risk of bringing the resources into Earth’s atmosphere. How would this be achieved and what are the dangers that there could be some operational issue where tons of resources suddenly become debris heading right for a large city? How do you prevent these unforeseen risks? Could some event like this wipe out an entire city or maybe even a larger region? Is it worth the risk? One way to combat this is to limit the amount of resources mined to a specified weight and size limit. This way, to some degree, the debris would either burn out in the Earth’s atmosphere or only minimal damages would be possible.

Now that the resources would be on Earth, and OSM has given the okay to start using these resources, the next big issue is how does the world handle this new influx of resources? Will only the rich countries profit from these resources? Will the financial gap increase to where the poor countries and poor people lose out on these vital resources, whereas the rich countries and the top 1% or the top money-making people have the benefits and decision-making opportunities of these resources? How would these resources be distributed? This issue could turn all nations into resource based economies. Since these mined resources were technically never owned, then how can these companies actually sell them? Or does a law have to be created stating that whosoever brings resources into the Earth’s pull they then take complete ownership of those resources?

Another issue, which to my knowledge has not been extensively studied, is how much pollution will be caused by space mining. From building the robots and mining tools here on Earth (at least to start with), then having rockets launch these robots out, to the systems and debris coming back down with resources; what is the impact of this? This is one area that must be studied in order to ethically claim that space mining is better for the Earth in the long run. OSM would need to create some pollution laws.
Another thing to look at is how space mining will affect job opportunities. On one hand, you would lose jobs in the conventional mining and resource areas here on Earth, but on the other hand many space mining derived jobs could be created as well. Looking at just the OSM for example, more jobs would be available over time as space mining companies develop, and this industry grows. It is a numbers game, that will have to be understood in order to keep economies stable.

The last ethical issue is on resource depletion. If we mine all the closest asteroids and SMB’s then we make it more difficult for future generations to do the same. One analogy that was found online is the analogy of a buffet [3] . In this case, let’s call it a breakfast buffet. If I end up being first in line, then what right would I have to take as much of the food as I can, potentially even getting so much that I wouldn’t be able to eat it all. And also, it would be unjust and unethical for me to take that extra food and then try to then sell it to make a profit, all because I went first. The same should be thought of for resources. Should we as humankind say that we should only mine resources out of necessity, and less out of greed and want? If we do it out of greed, what does that say about us as humankind? OSM would have to govern some type of system to say when there is too much of a type of resource, and that it can no longer be mined for a select period of time: essentially resulting in seasonal mining.

Though this paper has not even begun to scratch the surface of all the possible issues, my hope is that it enlightens others to see at least a few of these. We only have one blue marble we call Earth and exhausting all its resources is not an option. And since population is increasing and our resources are dwindling, the potential for space mining has become a viable option. Ethics in space mining will become particularly prevalent in the upcoming years. In order to solve these issues, we must begin discussing these topics. Not just one nation can solve these complex issues alone, but all nations must be involved together.

One comment