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Asteroid mission illustration
Cataloging and utilizing the vast resources of near Earth asteroids may be the solution to the economic woes of the planet. (credit: NASA)

Utilizing ET wealth: building a new world

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Utilizing asteroid wealth

Microprobes, tiny probes packed with cutting edge computer and scientific instrument technology, are the necessary link to the information-processing revolution that would allow mankind to quickly tap the vast wealth beyond Earth. By sending a microprobe to a near-Earth asteroid and using the same instruments and techniques employed in purely scientific missions, remotely assaying an asteroid could reveal its amount of precious metals: gold, silver, platinum, etc.

The idea is to simply assay the asteroid, leave the metals in situ, and use that acknowledged wealth to support projects.

According to Rick Tumlinson of the Space Frontier Foundation, one medium- to large-sized nickel-iron body (nickel-irons may contain up to a quarter of the total material making up the near-Earth population) would potentially contain more precious metal than has been mined in all human history. Dr. Donald K. Yeomans, chief of the Near-Earth Object Program Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and an investigator on NASA’s highly successful NEAR Shoemaker mission to study the near-Earth asteroid Eros, also says assaying an asteroid is possible. He is not ready to put a number on the amount of precious metals that may be found, however. Yeomans’ caution is important to note, not least because the investigation of Eros is a model of how assay missions would be conducted.

Still, if an average asteroid had several trillion dollars in precious metals, which is entirely possible, according to Tumlinson in a 2000 exchange, that lode could be used to underwrite, conservatively, several hundred billion dollars for projects of various kinds. That potential for good is from one average nickel-iron asteroid. Dr. Yeomans, with his experience at Eros, holds that by using techniques involving x-ray and gamma ray penetration of a body, plus other well-understood techniques, a precise inventory of the metals within can be established. Once confident in the validity of the results, conservative estimates could give way to higher dollar amounts of value.

Note that the idea is to simply assay the asteroid, leave the metals in situ, and use that acknowledged wealth to support projects, in the same way central banks around the world use various resources and other financial tools to support the value of their national currencies. Clearly, such a plan would work only if all nations agreed that the extraterrestrial wealth did in fact belong to humanity as a whole, but, after all, that is the current law. Clearly, too, the world’s central bankers should have a say in establishing precisely what constitutes “proof of resource” in a remote assay, since they will be responsible for integrating this truly added value into the human economy.

As a side benefit of this approach, if the bankers decided a human-conducted assay of one asteroid was necessary, to establish a baseline for later robotic assays, such a mission would be an ideal bridge between a short lunar trip and a long voyage to Mars. It would also serve as a deep-space test of technologies being considered for use on future Mars ships.

A legal precedent for such an approach exists. The 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea puts all deep ocean resources beyond territorial waters claimed by individual nations under one international authority. The Convention uses similar “common heritage of mankind” language to that found in the Outer Space Treaty. The Convention also gives landlocked nations a stake and a say in the management of deep ocean resources. We can establish a legal framework around the resources of the solar system.

The legal structure must also support the free enterprise economic model and acknowledge the political role the nation-state.

Projects that might be initiated under such an extraterrestrial plan are varied. The establishment of a modern healthcare system throughout Africa, now being devastated by various diseases, including AIDS, might be one. That continent will have strong political systems only after healthy national populations exist. Another possibility would be an international program to clean badly polluted sites left from the old Soviet empire. Such an effort would lift a huge burden off the backs of maturing democracies in the area, allowing them to allocate resources to other areas. The Middle East is the home of the three great monotheistic religions of the world—and increasingly a viciously unruly place. If there were a financial or development component to a future peace settlement there, it could be underwritten by wealth from asteroids. All of these suggestions are international in character, as befits the source of the wealth being tapped, and all aim to give people realistic hope for a better immediate future.

A legal structure that supports development through the next century, however, must also support the free enterprise economic model, and acknowledge the political role the nation-state will continue to play in humanity’s increasingly far-flung affairs. The outline of a three-tier structure, therefore, seems evident:

  • The Asteroid Remote Assay system sketched above, to be applied only to near-Earth asteroids, the so-called Apollo group. By establishing an independent scientific board to check the data collected in each assay against the criteria agreed upon by the world’s central banks, new wealth discovered could quickly be put to use. By rewarding corporations that build the probes and fly the missions with even a tiny fraction of the wealth found, a booming space industry with the capital to push deeper into space could quickly be established. (Such a freewheeling system would also quickly result in the identification of any large, dangerous asteroids on a collision course with Earth.)
  • Allowing private corporations to exercise “use sovereignty” over bodies in the main asteroid belt. That is, allowing a corporation to claim a body in that area as long as the corporation was actively using it—to mine, as a location for a scientific outpost or commercial factory, etc. This provision obviously looks deeper into the century and should be designed to encourage the continued development of science and technology and the expansion of activities in space.
  • Allowing nation-states to exercise sovereignty rights over large tracts of land on the major bodies of the solar system: the planets Mercury and Mars, plus the largest moons, including Earth’s. Venus would also fit into this category, of course, but the atmospheric pressure and incredible temperatures at the surface will likely put developing Venus off the board for some tine. Perhaps, therefore, Venus could be grouped with the Apollo asteroids, at least temporarily.

This final provision is tri-faceted. First, it seeks to lay a clear, firm legal foundation for the human settlement of those worlds. Second, it tries to give each settlement enough area so that it can be economically self-sufficient as soon as possible. And third, the provision attempts to build some stability based in law into what might otherwise be an exceedingly wild frontier. More likely, without such guarantees of legal standing, there will be no frontier at all; capital will not flow into areas where it is not protected by laws. If, as seems likely, nations band together to pursue interplanetary exploration and settlement, the tract-size due each nation in the group could be pooled with the others to create one extremely large area under unified control.

Such a treaty would seek to put the developing nations of mankind on a footing that would allow them to pursue their destiny as the people of each see fit and to manage the early stages of the development of a truly spacefaring civilization. To some, those two goals might seem badly paired in one document, but in fact they are yoked together as surely as we are all human. One will not happen absent the other.

Abraham Lincoln, standing in the new national cemetery at Gettysburg, said that Americans were then engaged in a war to determine whether government “of the people, by the people, for the people” would perish or long endure. That war is ongoing, pitting an expansive, rational, democratic future against a future ruled by force and terror and whim. As Gettysburg was but one battle in Lincoln’s trial by fire, so the American Civil War was but one episode in the struggle Lincoln defined so well. Perhaps, as weapons get ever more powerful and terrifying, and the human mind advances only slowly, the pivotal battles in that fight loom just ahead.