Areas of our Solar System need to be cordoned off as no-mining zones, believe scientists

With many startups preparing to bite into asteroids & the Moon, its time to consider 'space wilderness'.

Much like regions on Earth cordoned-off as no-hunting, no-mining or no-construction zones, large swathes of the solar system too should be marked as "space wilderness" that should not be exploited by commercial activity, scientists have proposed.

Demarcating zones in space where planets, moon and other celestial bodies are protected and off-limits for mining or any other form of human development will ensure their protection going forward. In a new proposal, researchers have called for 85 percent of our solar system to be classified as no-go zones for space commerce.

The goal, according to their proposal, is to leave other worlds pristine, but also for humanity to avoid a catastrophic future where extraterrestrial resources that asteroids, moons and planets have to offer, get used up permanently.

Areas of our Solar System need to be cordoned off as no-mining zones, believe scientists

How much of space should be left off-limits for space mining?

"Once you’ve exploited the solar system, there’s nowhere left to go," Martin Elvis, astrophysicist at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, told the Guardian. "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."

Space mining companies are already mushrooming, waiting at the wings for space and mining technology to match up to extraterrestrial challenges. While that may still be a few years away, there are plenty of readily available targets for mining in our partially-explored solar system. Asteroids for iron and precious minerals, and the moon for massive quantities of valuable minerals and water-ice.

Much of space mining will actually be done in order to sustain life on another world, in the form of habitats and fuel. Rockets powered by hydrogen fuel and fuel cells to store energy for mobile vehicles are already under construction. But there's also scope for gold, platinum and dozens of other precious metals to be returned to Earth.

Artist's impression of space mining. Image courtesy: Deep Space Industries

Artist's impression of space mining. Image courtesy: Deep Space Industries

Researchers estimate that if space mining grows at a humble rate of 3.5 percent, we would use up one-eighth of the solar system's accessible resources in just 400 years.

Say we did decide to designate "protected" space wilderness, choosing what areas to protect is tricky territory. As scientists explain in the study published in Acta Astronautica, there isn't yet a list of priorities or ranks to choose one over another. Would cities on the brightly-lit near side of the moon be a bigger priority than the lesser-known far side that is rich with stories to tell about the Moon's history? The rings of Saturn are stunning swirls of almost pure water ice. Should we steer clear of them, or mine them only partly so they aren't completely gone in a century?

The "gold rush" as the researchers describe it, has already taken aim, but is yet to leave the ground. We have an estimated ten years, in their view, to put regulations in place for space mining. If we don't, this free-for-all that's ruining our planet will extend well into our solar system.

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