How “wild” we need to leave the Solar system?

The space is large, as expressed by the famous writer Douglas Adams. In comparison with the boundaries of our own planet, space, Solar system is absurdly large. The idea that we can Deplete its huge reserves, it seems almost funny. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos touched on this subject on may 9 during a speech dedicated to the Blue Moon, the lunar lander, his space company. “If we go in the Solar system, you will get unlimited resources, for all practical purposes,” said the billionaire.

How many resources in the Solar system?

And yet, one recent study shows that at the current rate of growth humanity is able to exhaust most of the available wealth in our stellar region in less than five centuries. To prevent interplanetary space crisis, co-authors of the study suggestthat our civilization needs some way to develop a stable practice of space exploration, in theory highlighting more than seven eighths of our star system as a “protected zone”. The results of their work were published in the journal Acta Astronautica.

Study co-author Martin Elvis, a researcher from the Center for astrophysics at Harvard University and the Smithsonian institution, several years ago thinking about how much metal you can extract resources from the asteroid belt between Jupiter and Mars. Although the asteroids are difficult to access, in many other respects they seem to are excellent sources of iron and other heavy metals, as in the small, easily produced packaging space rocks are concentrated quite a large stockpile of ore. According to estimates, Elvis-this belt contains one million times more iron reserves than is available on Earth.

The only question is, how long will it take to use all this wealth. “I was hoping that the answer would be something like 10,000 years. It turned out, 400,” says Elvis.

The problem is exponential growth. Like in the population of prolific rabbits, the rate of consumption of mankind increased rapidly many times in a short period of time. Assuming that the space economy will maintain annual growth rates at 3.5 per cent — the same increase in the use of iron after the industrial revolution — we can assume that one eighth of the resources of the asteroid belt would be depleted in four centuries.

The eighth part may not seem that big, but Elvis and his colleague Tony Milligan think this is a turning point. After overcoming this threshold potentially insatiable needs of humanity in metals will double every 20 years. This means that first a quarter, then half, and finally the entire stock in the asteroid belt will be used only for the following six decades.

Of course, the concept of uncontrolled expansion was used previously, it can help the earthlings promised to strike it rich in the future, since the time of Thomas Robert Malthus. In 1894, the prediction based on the number of horses that will be needed to move the population of London via five decades, has allowed to assume that every street in the city will eventually be buried under nine pounds of manure. However, the advent of cars made this gloomy forecast is controversial.

Elvis and Milligan is not interested in becoming heralds of the contemporary Malthusian disasters. But even if predictions based on an exponential rate, are naive, the broader argument of the scientists is that the resources on the last turn, as elsewhere, have their limitations. Milligan indicates that people of the 19th century, the vast territory and wealth of the North American continent also seemed inexhaustible huge.

“We’ve seen this movie, and the ending we didn’t like,” he says. “At first, everything seems great, but after a while is not so great”.

Scientists say that if you have crossed the one-eighth, the attempt to reorient the economy, millions of times exceeding the size of present earth, for some half a century, will be extremely difficult — especially if corporations and other corporate stakeholders will pull shovel huge profits. A more sensible approach would be to avoid reaching this point, perhaps declaring the bulk of the Solar system unavailable for use from the beginning.

Processing of materials may extend the time required for exhaustion of the metallic wealth of the Solar system, but infinitely it could not last. In his speech, Bezos outlined the trillions of people living and working on giant rotating space stations — habitat O’neill. Once the metal is added to these designs, the crews of these outposts will protest against any attempt to dismantle their homes for scrap.

The embodiment proposed by scientists of the principle into practical measures is still in the development stage. In the first place, says Elvis, we need to accurately assess how useful resources contains the Solar system. Do I need to take into account the total area of the surfaces of Mars and the moon? What about the huge reserves of gas (or rich metal core) worlds like Jupiter and Neptune? Perhaps places with great natural splendor or interesting science such as the giant canyon Valles Marineris on Mars, will always be closed. Likewise, it would be a shame to assume the deposits of water ice in the beautiful rings of Saturn open for development.

The exploration of Saturn’s rings?

Elvis and Milligan want their ideas were flexible and included a compromise. If the plans of the General Director of SpaceX Elon musk to bring settlers to Mars will not succeed, perhaps the first settlers agree not to touch much of this world. But if the colony will be built, residents will have to capture more than one-eighth of the planet. Perhaps a large proportion of the asteroid belt — or some other, more desirable, and valuable real estate in the Solar system, could receive protected status.

The first debate needs to connect economists and politicians. Experts from a closed society space flight also speculate about the findings of scientists. Some say that it is too early to discuss it.

In any case, the principles of one generation are not always perceived by the people of the next generation, and even if Milligan says he would be surprised if people a century or two lived in accordance with modern beliefs. At the same time, many great projects in the history of mankind lasted for many generations.

Now is the time to start thinking about how to ensure a fair outcome for those who will live after us. In this sense. In his optimistic vision, Bezos claimed that promise almost bottomless wealth of the Solar system will provide us with more rosy future than the stagnation that will come if we stay tied to our finite Earth. But Bezos could be wrong. Because even at infinity, we need to practice self-control.

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