industrials

Humans will make the same mistakes in space if there is no regulation.

The writer is the author of ‘The Red Planet: A Natural History of Mars’

Standing on the edge of the vast Fimiston gold mine in Western Australia, some 30 years ago, I marvelled at the sheer size and depth of the scar in the landscape. The experience came to mind when Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos commented in July, hours after he flew into space, that “we need to take all heavy industry, all polluting industry, and move it into space”. Removing extractive industries and its associated poisonous waste from Earth is a laudable aim. But just how feasible is it?

The first obstacle to overcome is one posed by technology. Barely six decades separated the first powered flight and man stepping on to the moon. Since then, the cost to orbit of a kilogramme of cargo has plummeted as rocketry has matured. In the late 1950s, this cost was $1m; SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy can now boost 1kg into orbit for $1,400, and the company’s next-generation Starship aims for just $10 per kg. Access to space is no longer the preserve of countries with space programmes.

Yet the laws governing space exploration and exploitation trail behind the technology and plans of entrepreneurs. Space is already exploitable — the commercial satellite business is worth $270bn — but the real riches lie in the metals, minerals and gases that make up extraterrestrial objects.

Although Mars, the moon and asteroids will not be mined in any significant sense for some decades, it is time to clarify space law to provide commercial enterprises legal protections — and to ensure they do not act irresponsibly. The foundational piece of legislation is the UN’s Outer Space Treaty, drafted in 1967 and adopted by most nation states. Essentially a relic of the cold war, it contains articles that are highly inconvenient to the nascent extraterrestrial mining industry — the chief of which is the ban on owning anything outside of Earth.

Future manned missions to Mars anticipate using the planet’s ice, soil and atmosphere to supply astronauts with water, building materials and rocket fuel. Even this small-scale appropriation is currently legally dubious and potentially open to litigation.

Property rights and the ability to legally enforce them are critical for legitimate commercial enterprises. The absence of both a regulatory framework and a regulator should be enough to kill the ambitions of both entrepreneurs and investors. Yet we should be alive to the fact that unregulated mining already happens and it’s dirty, lethally dangerous and inspires region-wide conflicts. It is a model that we export to space at our peril.

In drawing up new regulations, the UN needs to resist attempts from countries to unilaterally excuse themselves of their existing treaty obligations — as the US did when in 2015 Congress passed the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, suggesting that ownership of mined minerals could be conferred without ownership of the extraterrestrial object.

Instead there needs to be effort from all interested parties — governments, companies and labour — to arrive at a comprehensive international agreement. Ensuring Earth’s safety from mis-steered asteroids should be at the top of the agenda, along with the protection of satellites and manned structures in orbit. Off-world crew need rights as much as investors do. Whose responsibility would it be to rescue them in the event of bankruptcy?

The lure of asteroids composed of several million cubic kilometres of pure iron-nickel and other elements will eventually prove irresistible as Earth’s own resources deplete. Proof-of-concept experiments carried out by universities and space agencies have already shown how we might steer asteroids into stable orbits about the Earth, and from there strip them. This may not be beyond us for too long. Humanity should learn from the extraction of natural resources on Earth and set in place the safeguards for space.

hello, I am Flora Khan and i work journalist in allnewshouse website i work in other sites like forbes and washington post with 5 years in experience.

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