The push to start mining in space could pose a major threat to the future of life on Earth, scientists have warned.
Over the past few years, fledgling space mining companies have set their sights on precious metals, minerals and other valuable materials locked up in asteroids and nearby rocky planets.
These natural resources – including iron, gold, platinum and water – could be worth trillions of pounds back on Earth.
However, the lion's share of mined resources would most likely be used out in space to build habitats for astronauts on the Moon and Mars, and also to make rocket fuel.
Researchers claim that, unless we preserve our solar system from industrial exploitation, we risk permanently using up all of the resources within human reach.
Martin Elvis, a senior astrophysicist at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, warns that the implications for humanity's future could be catastrophic.
"If we don't think about this now, we will go ahead as we always have, and in a few hundred years we will face an extreme crisis, much worse than we have on Earth now," Elvis told The Guardian .
"Once you've exploited the solar system, there's nowhere left to go."
Working with Tony Milligan, a philosopher at King's College London, Elvis analysed how soon humans might use up the solar system's most accessible resources, should space mining take off.
The scientists found that an annual growth rate of 3.5% would use up an eighth of the solar system's realistic resources in 400 years.
At that point, humanity would have only 60 years to rein in mining activity to avoid exhausting the supply completely.
The scientists are calling for 85% of the solar system to be placed off-limits to human development, leaving little more than an eighth for space mining.
While this may seem excessive, Elvis points out that even one eighth of the iron in the asteroid belt is more than a million times greater that the estimated iron ore reserves on Earth.
However, deciding which areas of the solar system to protect from the space mining industry could be troublesome, according to the researchers.
For example, the Valles Marineris on Mars – the largest canyon in the solar system – might deserve protection, just as the Grand Canyon is protected on Earth.
"Do we want cities on the near side of the moon that light up at night? Would that be inspiring or horrifying?" said Elvis.
"And what about the rings of Saturn? They are beautiful, almost pure water ice. Is it OK to mine those so that in 100 years they are gone?”
"If everything goes right, we could be sending our first mining missions into space within 10 years.
"Once it starts and somebody makes an enormous profit, there will be the equivalent of a gold rush. We need to take it seriously.”
The research will be published in a forthcoming issue of Acta Astronautica .
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