Jul 17, 2019 | Updated: 10:03 AM EDT

Space Mining Could Ruin Our Solar System, Researchers Warn

May 15, 2019 03:09 PM EDT

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The government has been passing laws regarding the protection of the Earth's most vulnerable places from the ravages of different industries, but a new study suggests that our planet is not the only one that needs protecting from human exploitation.

A study published on April 16 in the journal Acta Astronautica makes a case for designating at least 85% of the solar system should be protected wilderness similar to the Earth's national parks. This leaves just 1/8th of moons, asteroids and eligible planets free to be mined or developed by human interest.

In the study, it mention if the growth of space economy is similar to the exponential growth of terrestrial economies since the Industrial Revolution, then humans could deplete the solar system of all its iron, water and other resources that are mineable, in a matter of centuries. This could potentially leave the solar system all dried up in just 500 years.

"On a timescale of less than a millennium we could have super-exploitation of the entire solar system out to its most distant edges," the authors wrote. "Then, we are done."

Limiting the exploitation of resources on other planets now, before the space economy progresses, is needed to avoid what the authors call "a crisis of potentially catastrophic proportions".

Limiting the galactic consumption to 1/8th of the available resources may sound like a bad deal, but space is a huge place and even a small fraction of our solar system's bounty could set humans up for generations.

"One-eighth of the iron in the asteroid belt is more than a million times greater than all of the Earth's currently estimated iron ore reserves," the authors wrote, "and it may well suffice for centuries." 

The researchers looked at the estimated iron use on Earth since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and come up with the "1/8th principle". According to a survey in 1994 regarding the environmental impacts of the revolution, the global production of crude iron increased from half a million tons in 1800 to half a billion tons of steel produced in 1994. This rate is equivalent to the world's iron production doubling once every 20 years. The new data from the U.S Geological Survey supports this estimate as the world's iron production increased from 1 billion tons in 994 to 2.2 billion tons in 2016.

If humans show the same level of industriousness when mining the resources on moons, asteroids and nearby planets, we could reach the hypothetical 1/8th point after 400 years. If the production continues to double every 20 years after that, all of the resources in the solar system would be depleted in just 60 years. This would give humans 60 years to change from a space resource-based economy to an unhopeful prospect, given the nonchalant response to the current environmental crises that we are facing, such as climate change and population growth.

"Worldwide, the present rate of planetary mission launches is 15 per decade," the authors wrote. "At this rate, even just the nearly 200 worlds of the solar system that gravity has made spherical would take 130 years to visit once."

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