It sounds like science fiction, but the idea of moving heavy industries off Earth seems far less far-fetched ever before.
Collecting resources from other planets or asteroids instead of using up what little we have left on Earth could be the key to ensuring that human beings survive, Discover Magazine reports.
“The solar system can support a billion times greater industry than we have on Earth,” Phil Metzger, a planetary scientist at the University of Central Florida, told Discover. “When you go to vastly larger scales of civilization, beyond the scale that a planet can support, then the types of things that civilization can do are incomprehensible to us.”
Investing in Space
As Earth-based resources dwindle, the population increases — and something has to give. At least, that’s the argument behind a new school of companies that have cropped up over the last decade or so, trying to become pioneers of space resource gathering.
For instance, Planetary Resources Inc. has collected tens of millions in funding to develop asteroid mining technologies. But financial troubles meant that the company had to delay its first asteroid prospecting mission indefinitely.
Billionaire Blue Origin and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is all-in as well.
“The reason we’ve got to go to space, in my view, is to save the Earth,” Bezos said during the announcement of his space company’s lunar lander last month.
“A very fundamental long-range problem is that we will run out of energy on Earth,” Bezos said at the event. “This is just arithmetic. It will happen.”
Even NASA has recently chosen to invest millions of dollars in tech concepts that could help us explore lunar crates and mining asteroids.
Not only physical resources could become the solution for an overburdened planet. Solar power stations in space could beam near-limitless energy back to Earth — a plan that China is already working to put into action.
But not everybody is of the same mind: a group of scientists came together to sign a proposal calling for more than 85 percent of the solar system to be protected from human development.
“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,” Martin Elvis, senior astrophysicist at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and lead author of the proposal told The Guardian. “Once you’ve exploited the solar system, there’s nowhere left to go.”
Before space manufacturing and mining become reality, there’s still a lot of work to be done as scientists have only made incremental steps towards that future so far. Just five years ago, California-based startup Made In Space became the first company to 3D print an object in zero gravity.
The same company scored a major contract with NASA in 2018 to develop a “hybrid metal manufacturing system for space exploration.” The idea is to print parts using aerospace-grade metals like titanium and aluminum.
These efforts however are still a far cry from a future in which asteroid mining could support human civilizations in deep space. We haven’t even figured out which nation will get to call those resources their own — an issue that’s bound to conjure up some political uneasiness.
But time is running out — climate change and rapidly-depleting resources are forcing us to look beyond our home planet. Hopefully we can make the transition before it’s too late.
READ MORE: Made in Space: Why Earth’s Industries Might One Day Leave Our Planet [Discover Magazine]
More on space mining: NASA Funds $2M Study to See if We Could Live in Moon Pits