Lunar gold rush is about to start—and we could exhaust the solar system in less than 500 years

Lunar gold rush is about to start – and we could exhaust the solar system in less than 500 years
Territorial claim? US astronaut Buzz Aldrin salutes the American flag. Credit: NASA

The US president, Donald Trump, has stuck to his plan to send humans back to the moon in the next five years, recently giving the project a US$1.6 billion shot in the arm. Whether he succeeds or not, the first successful landing on the lunar far side by China, the European Space Agency's recent "lunar village" concept and a myriad of private companies all gearing up for commercial human spaceflight indicate that a human return to the moon may be about to begin in earnest.

But is it a good idea? A new study suggests that, to avoid material exhaustion of the solar system, humans ought to limit ourselves to developing just one-eighth of the available resources. As we may be witnessing the start of a new lunar gold rush of sorts, this new proposal may be put to the test sooner than we think—and the moon will serve as an early test bed.

The reason for this has to do with something called the "doubling time—how long it takes for a quantity to double. For example, an economy which grows at 10% per annum would double in value in 7.3 years. When it comes to space, only three doubling times are necessary to go from one-eighth to 100%.

In other words, once we reach a point where we have consumed one-eighth of the solar system's resources, it would take only three doubling times to consume the rest. At a modest rate of 3.5% growth per year in material consumption of space resources, the one-eight point would be reached after 400 years. However, at this point it would take less than 60 years to use up all the remaining resources in the solar system, creating an enormous problem for any future space economy—and leaving very little time to find a solution.

The paper therefore suggests keeping the remaining seven-eighths of the solar system as a "wilderness". Such areas would be free for humans to explore, but not exploit.

Lunar resources

The potential for resource and scientific exploitation on the moon is high. However, resources are not uniformly distributed. For example, water is going to be a much-valued commodity, given that it can be used for growing crops, to produce rocket fuel, provide air for breathing and, of course, be consumed directly by people.

Lunar water is believed to exist as ice mixed in with lunar regolith (soil) primarily in permanently shadowed craters in the polar regions, making it a finite and non-renewable resource. Certain areas of the moon are also particularly rich in titanium – again valuable ores are not present in the same quantities everywhere.

To process the resources, we will need energy. The most abundant form of energy on the lunar surface is sunlight, and generating solar energy is particularly suited to a few choice locations. On a handful of mountain peaks near the poles the orientation of the moon's rotation is such that the sun never sets—offering an uninterrupted source of energy.

Lunar gold rush is about to start – and we could exhaust the solar system in less than 500 years
Mountain peak in Tycho crater on the Moon could be a future mining prospect. Credit: NASA Goddard/Arizona State University

From a scientific perspective, the lunar far side presents an excellent site for radio astronomy observatories—particularly of the early universe. The Earth's ionosphere tends to block the lowest frequency radio transmissions and create noise, even at higher frequencies.

Legal vagueness

It is likely that there are going to be competing future demands from different players for different areas of the lunar surface. So who owns what? Well, as it happens, no one country can—at present—claim ownership of anywhere in space under the Outer Space Treaty. In particular the treaty states " is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty", and that "the exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind".

It is worth noting that not every country has signed the treaty. In 2015, the United States passed the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015 which, among other things, allows US citizens to "engage in the commercial exploration and exploitation of 'space resources' (including … water and minerals)". While the act does make it clear that the US recognises that outer space is not sovereign territory, it seems a bit vague as to precisely whether a commercial private company exploiting resources in space is really acting "for the benefit and in the interests of all countries".

If outer space, or at least one-eighth of it, really is the preserve of all mankind then does this imply that resources out there really should belong collectively to all humanity?

Let us suppose that there is some international agreement to limit our development of outer space, as the new paper suggests. Clearly it is likely to be the case that wealthy countries and/or powerful corporations will get to the moon and exploit its resources first. This scenario is not without precedent.

Deep-sea mining in international waters on Earth promises a potential mineral windfall for those who are able to exploit it, but the potential environmental impact is already causing concern. Likewise, the actions of a number of countries in the South China Sea demonstrates how easy it is for sufficiently powerful nation states to ignore international agreements or arbitration when the potential for resource wealth is present. This, presumably, could apply just as easily to private corporations or countries operating on the moon.

Does this all seem a bit far-fetched? Well, as the paper argues, we humans are not great at appreciating the impact of long-term exponential growth. In 2018 the global space sector was valued at $360 billion and is forecast to grow at 5.6% per annum. By 2026—two years after Trump plans to return to the moon—it will be worth $558 billion. If we assume annual growth of 5% continues, then in a century the space sector would be worth 130 times its present value. In two centuries, it would be worth 17,300 times its present value and might even exceed the total wealth of the terrestrial economy.

Much of this future wealth could come from resource extraction, particularly from asteroid and lunar mining. These are timescales comparable with just a few generations of humans. Whether such a growth rate will be maintained over a century I am uncertain—but I would not bet against it.

It is often said that possession is nine-tenths of the law. As we tentatively embark upon a new human chapter in outer , we should reflect carefully before repeating the same mistakes we've already made on Earth.


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May 23, 2019
It seems that almost everyone underestimates the power of exponential growth. This study should be sobering. You can use up space and resources in an amazingly short span of time, if consumption follows even a modest exponential growth pattern. Gobble gobble gobble-- and then it's gone.

May 23, 2019
So to stop us running out of resources, we should plan to run out of resources earler. Why?

May 23, 2019
The Apollo program cost $25.4 Billion totaled in 1973. In 2019, that is the equivalent of over $150 Billion, adjusted for inflation.

Even assuming we are planning nothing more than a modest do-over, $1.6 Billion is only 1% of the required budget.

This is sizing up to be another propaganda science area, like flying cars and fusion power, that never materializes, and that says, don't worry about the future it'll be rosy and if something actually comes up we'll decide and let you know. Meanwhile, other stuff comes along instead like pharmaceuticals and computers.

$1.6 Billion is just the right sum of money to dedicate manpower to dreaming up plans and testing a few things so there will be plenty of fodder for more propaganda science pieces in the future.

May 24, 2019
"Why?" the man asks...
Cause we are mindlessly greedy monkeys.
Big Brains are not proof of intelligence.

As our Giant Cockroach successors will point out laughing at our self-inflicted extinction event.
Mocking us for our pretensions self-aggrandization.

I would suggest that for patriotic hysterical reasons, that we insist that the first Lunar colony be named, appropriately enough,
New Jamestown!

May 24, 2019
"once we reach a point where we have consumed one-eighth of the solar system's resources... The paper therefore suggests keeping the remaining seven-eighths of the solar system as a "wilderness". Such areas would be free for humans to explore, but not exploit..."

What_rubbish. Lets check the authorship...

"Martin Elvis Astrophysicist, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics"
"Tony Milligan is a Scottish philosopher who is currently a teaching fellow in ethics and the philosophy of religion in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at King's College London."

-Ah. Philopoison. I suspect 90% philo, 10% aging scientist desperate to publish.
cont>

May 24, 2019
From the 'paper'

"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, and it may well suffice for centuries."

-Centuries. Whole centuries. And after so many centuries, when we consume a million times the entire content of the earths iron reserves (including the core???) then what? Start using concrete? Titanium???

This is science clickbait.

"A limit of some sort is necessary because of the problems associated with exponential growth... Population growth and climate change are instances of unchecked exponential growth"

-This is the problem when idiot savants and -philos- are given a voice. The west has already achieved zero growth. We UNDERSTAND overgrowth. And we are near the transition from human to sentient machine. Machines will naturally limit consumption through innovation. THEIR pops will grow while ours will shrink.

No need to turn titan into a park.

May 24, 2019
Moonchinian Gold Fever

This Moonchine Gold Rush
we have been beaten to this claim
we have been left behind
the ones looking in at these Moonchinians
flooding in to mark their claim
as these Moonchinians are back
back on their darkside
instilled with gold fever
panning their gold
dreaming their million dollar golden nugget
we have lost the race to this goldrush
as these Moonchinians have already staked their claim
on their darkside
On their Moonchine, their Moon

May 24, 2019
Moonchinians on Moonchine

In years gone by
those distant times
those golden times
a gentler age
this Concord graced these skies
air travel was this hazy lazy flight to your dreams
Restrictions free a gentler age
Saturn rockets thundered skyward
we walked this moon
this shuttle launched from it bay
the greatest telescope to orbit these heavens
gone these dreams
gone those lazy hazy days.
they were the days
gone for ever

Not for these Moonchinians
their lazy hazy dreams are just beginning
for these Moonchinians are just entering their dreams
as these Moonchinians their dream is not a race to space
Moonchinians have arrived
these Moonchinians are not going back
this is their eternal dream
these Moonchinians have come to live in this space
live in this vacuum, in this vacuous vacuum that is space
we cannot beat them in their dream
they are not competing
these Moonchinians are an ancient race
an advanced race
as
These Moonchinians are here to stay on their Moonchine, their Moon

May 24, 2019
The answer, of course, is recycling. After all, the iron and other metals aren't going to just go away unless we do stupid shit like putting them in subduction zones or throwing them into the Sun.

May 24, 2019
"A new study suggests that, to avoid material exhaustion of the solar system, humans ought to limit ourselves to developing just one-eighth of the available resources. "

Progressives must stay up hours upon hours each night dreaming of new regulations that they can impose on mankind. It is a good thing that they are holding up the sky for otherwise surely it would come crashing down on all of us.

May 24, 2019
Real conservative progressives understand that matter is limited. And it's always easier to recover and recycle than process new material. The new material is always limited and requires more effort to make into artifacts than the garbage.

May 24, 2019
I think if we are to conserve any space resources? The three most valuable in terms of habitating Space?

Are, volatile ices, especially water.
Carbonaceous amalgamates
& the otherwise worthless nickel-iron rocks for the phosphate contents.

However, the decisions will be made by the gluttons who delude themselves that gold gas any value except for electronics & shielding.

May 24, 2019
Da I have no problem with reusing natural resources. It makes good economic sense in most cases. Plastics should be reused if possible or burned for energy if it can be done without releasing harmful chemicals.

May 24, 2019
The solution to our dreams - this fusion reactor

These metals these gases
are forged in the fusion of stars
there is no shortage
as why go these million miles
into our solar system to plunder its recourses
when
at our feet are all the resources we require
forge our materials in our fusion reactors
then
We need not plunder this solar system

May 24, 2019
Given 500 more years of advances in material science, the resources of this system would provide the stepping stones to conquer the entire galaxy. No need to worry about using it all when it will be used for things we can't even imagine from our point of view.

May 25, 2019
So let me get this straight, the little insignificant speck of a life form called mankind will deplete the solar system of all of it's valuable resources in 500 years. What are these so called scientists smoking?

May 25, 2019
So let me get this straight, the little insignificant speck of a life form called mankind will deplete the solar system of all of it's valuable resources in 500 years. What are these so called scientists smoking?
Its a philo. Of RELIGION. Read my post. Two disciplines dedicated to convincing us that humanity is scum, combined in one nasty little nebbish.
https://en.wikipe...Milligan

-AND, it's from the Conversation.

May 25, 2019
Yep. There are seven billion of us now. Four times more than 100 years ago. How many will there be in 500 years?

May 25, 2019
We do not eat the Heavier Elements.
We do eat the Lighter Elements.

May 25, 2019
How many will there be in 500 years?
What makes you think we will be reproducing at the same rate as we were 100 years ago when EVERYONE was religious?

Colonies needed filling. Wars needed fighting. Infrastructure needed building. Crops needed tending. Industry needed workers. Religion was the mechanism used to keep pops growing at unnaturally high rates to accomplish those things.

The world now full. The world no longer needs human colonists and fighters and workers. And we wont be sending colonists in bulk to other worlds either. The first to arrive will grow their own pops. And they will have their own machines to do the work for them.

Mars will probably never have more than a few million inhabitants, living in widely dispersed cities underground. Earths pops will shrink to a few billion. Innovation breeds conservation; more done with less.

Humans themselves will become more and more machine until, in a few dozen gens, we may disappear altogether.

May 26, 2019
'A new study suggests that, to avoid material exhaustion of the solar system, humans ought to limit ourselves to developing just one-eighth of the available resources.'

If "experts" have demonstrated anything for certain, it is that they are laughably unable to predict anything concerning human progress.

Never forget Malthus was an "expert" in his time. Latterly, Ehrlich's ridiculous claims are the butt of jokes among all those who don't depend on self-interested "experts" to predict the future.

Any limits on human expansion, progress and innovation will be laughed out of existence once again as we do what we're meant to do in the conquest of space.

The pantywaists can stay home.

May 26, 2019
Never forget Malthus was an "expert" in his time
?? He was. Over ONE BILLION abortions worldwide since roe v wade, plus 100s of millions more never conceived due to family planning and contraception, as well as their offspring to the 3rd and 4th gen... perhaps 1/4 the worlds population never born. Industrial countries have achieved sustainable growth only because of these draconian measures.

Elsewhere pops grow unchecked. Mass migration, war, starvation, human trafficking, ecological destruction... all the results of overgrowth.

It could not be any clearer, more obvious.

May 26, 2019
"Lunar gold rush is about to start—and we could exhaust the solar system in less than 500 years"
Guess we'd better get working on FTL Interstellar, then...

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