Since Friday, with the fall of a meteor in Russia’s Urals, the close fly-by of Asteroid 2012 DA14, and reports of a meteorite sighted over Cuba, a renewed interest has been shown for near-earth objects (NEOs), notably because of the threat they may constitute to the earth and its inhabitants. Yet, NEOs are not only about dangers and Armageddon scenarios, they may also well be an opportunity. Back at the end of 2008, thinking about the resource and energy issues humanity was facing, I was wondering which “grey swans,” to use Taleb’s terminology, we were overlooking. The possibility to use resources from space emerged as a major wild card, which could completely upset all our scenarios.
From dream to reality by 2025
This idea was actually not far-fetched and very serious people were working on it.
For example, in the US, the Center for Space Resource of the Colorado School of Mines Research Center, promoted the fascinating 8th Continent Project: Bringing Space down to Earth. This Center is also part of the Space Resources Roundtable, (see their steering committee for other institutions and companies). At the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, John S. Lewis, professor of planetary science published back in 1997 Mining the Sky: Untold Riches from the Asteroids, Comets, and Planets. It was and is a topic important enough to belong to the education resources of the NASA, e.g. Lesson 17. Asteroid Resources: The Stepping Stone to Beyond. The Keck Institute for Space Studies (KISS) at Caltech started working in September 2011 on an Asteroid Retrieval Feasibility Study (pdf), published in April 2012, “to investigate the feasibility of identifying, robotically capturing, and returning an entire Near-Earth Asteroid (NEA) to the vicinity of the Earth by the middle of the next decade, i.e. 2025.”
What could have been seen as part of a far away science fiction’s future has become very real with the launch of Planetary Resources Inc. in April 2012. A quick look at the founders, advisors and investors shows the seriousness of the venture, grounded in science, imagination, power and wealth, which also facilitates media coverage and access to future needed capital (see, for example, for an April 2012 round-up Is Planetary Resources Using a NASA Report As a Business Plan? by Keith Cowing, NasaWatch.com). The NASA awarded a contract to US firms to study the feasibility of asteroid’s mining (Andrew Duffy, “NASA awards asteroid mining contract,” 28 September, 2012 , Australian Mining). More recently, on 23 January 2013, Deep Space Industries unveiled its creation, plans and needs (see, for example, related articles in The Guardian or in Popular Mechanics).
Meanwhile, as Planetary Resources emphasizes, using the Urals’ Meteor and Asteroid 2012 DA14 events, the new capabilities that are being developed to mine asteroids can also help in preventing the threat aspect of NEOs. The latter were notably discussed during the meeting of the Action Team-14, part of the 50th session of the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), which is serendipitously held from February 11 to 22 (Leonard David, space.com).
What would entail such a future, where resources also come from space?
It is most than likely that everything we know would be fundamentally reshaped, to start with our worldview, our Weltanschaung. With the Copernican revolution, human beings inhabiting the Western world, or rather, then the Christian world, stopped seeing themselves as the center of the universe, while the Church started seeing its demise from its central role, science developed and the modern world was being born. What could be the consequences in terms of worldview if we could now travel into space, push further the boundaries, and furthermore exchange with other spatial bodies, without being so afraid? How would the paradigm shift we are most probably living through be impacted?
Would we only exploit, not taking stock of the lessons we learned on earth? Would we thus go towards an even more selfish world fraught with hubris and even bitterer struggles and wars? A world where the human technological feat thus realized would bring us back towards an even more human centric system, somehow closer to the pre-modern era than to the modern one? On the contrary, would travels and long sojourn outside Earth bring us more humility, more awareness of our dependency upon the rest, of our belonging to a whole, because the Earth and its inhabitants are so infinitely small and fragile? The generalization of images of the Earth from outside its atmosphere, or even of the fact that the Earth may not be seen from other location in space, could have a very profound effect, as it would affect consciousness and imagination (as Benedict Anderson shows in Imagined Communities).
This novel type of resources, as those coming from deep-sea mining, and their multifaceted impacts should be integrated in all our judgments on the future. But is it truly the case? To take only two famous examples, the US National Intelligence Council Global Trends 2030, although dealing with resources scarcity, only considers space from the point of view of extended warfare and asteroids as the cause of possible natural catastrophe. On the contrary, The UK MoD, Global Strategic Trends Out to 2040 (Feb 2010), not only always integrates space as a domain and an operational field, but also underlines the importance and likely rising relevance of the “exploitation of extreme environments”, including “space; the Polar regions; the deep ocean; and deep underground regions” (pp. 115-116, p.145), in the framework of resources supply (or scarcity). Unfortunately the multidimensional impact of these exploitations is not fully developed, despite two pages devoted to space (pp.152-153).
More efforts to better consider space, including resources, are necessary. In the meanwhile, we shall monitor the issue with one of our daily scans, the Space Resources Sigils.