It’s Time for Intersolar Space

I’ve now mused out loud here at Troppo about orbital solar power and some of the astounding bounty of resources available in the solar system. Time for a bit more musing on some legal and economic aspects of colonising and industrialising intrasolar space — which I hereafter refer to as ICI — Intrasolar Colonisation & Industrialisation.

Space: The Legal Frontier

Space law is a funny thing, mostly composed of a series of treaties. Most important of these for my discussion are the Outer Space Treaty and the Moon Treaty. Australia has signed and ratified both, but none of the spacefaring nations has ratified the Moon Treaty. As it turns out this doesn’t make much of a difference to my main point, which is that Australia should leave both treaties in favour of a new arrangement.

These two treaties essentially ban sovereignty being asserted over celestial bodies in any manner, including by occupation. Instead they are considered to be res communis, owned jointly without the ability to carve out individual sections, a bit like International Waters.

This is very much a Cold War outlook. The USA and USSR pretty correctly deduced that any other arrangement would lead to big trouble sooner or later, and so they simply wrote the problem out of their hair in the Outer Space Treaty. That’s fine, except that the Cold War is over and we are surrounded by resources that cannot be used. No private company has any incentive to move into space, because they do not have recourse to the law of any country to hold what they homestead. This may be very romantic for anarcho-capitalists, but quite simply it renders ICI utterly impossible in any commercial setting.

Sovereignty of some kind is going to be necessary for ICI. In the long run settlements and outposts throughout intrasolar space will probably become independent; in the short term it will be useful to stand on the grounding of a fully developed legal system.

A smart country wanting to improve its budgetary position would adopt a body of legislation for recognising homesteading rights on celestial bodies. It would encourage private industry to start exploring and utilising space without the need for public funding.

Space: The Economic Frontier

Then what? We’d face some interesting economic shifts. Take asteroid mining, for example. According to the stats the typical stony asteroid is about 3% mineral, including a lot of valuable minerals. A close flyby of the medium asteroid Eros, some 2,900 cubic kilometres in volume, suggested that it could have around 20 billion tonnes of gold and 20 billion tonnes of platinum in it. More minerals, in fact, than have or could ever be extracted from the top of the Earth’s crust.

This is an asteroid that could be pushed into orbit around the Earth or the Moon in a few years once orbital industry is established.A view of Eros.

At today’s prices for gold and platinum that single asteroid is worth trillions of dollars. Gold is currently trading around AU$32,000 per kilo. Multiplied by 20 trillion kilos gives — if I haven’t counted the zeros wrong — a value of $640 quadrillion for gold. The figure for platinum is about $1500 quadrillion.

Of course it wouldn’t sell for anything like that — upon the arrival of Eros in orbit the prices of gold and platinum would be utterly devastated. So too would be goldbugs, for whom the claim that gold supply grows only slowly would be ruined in a titanic (or rather, an Erotic) blast of cheap gold. On the other hand there are many industrial and chemical processes which the price of gold and platinum make uneconomical. Gold is a nice conductor, for example, and so might come to replace copper in many applications. I’m sure some electrical engineers, materials scientists and industrial chemists could name other uses which advance the welfare of humankind.

But currently, Eros is a worthless rock, because it cannot be owned. No company can invest in a venture to homestead and then tug Eros to a convenient orbit for processing, because no company could enjoy legal protections afforded to a regular mining company. No company can sensibly invest in casinos on Mars, tourist destinations near Saturn, colonies and orbital stations at L5, or mines and mass drivers on the moon.

The greatest single step in the history of humankind — to grow into intrasolar space, to colonise and industrialise and enjoy — is waiting for us to shrug off a hangover from another era. And frankly, it’s about time we did it.

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17 Responses to It’s Time for Intersolar Space

  1. Chris Lloyd says:

    I don’t quite see how any country can just ignroe the treaty. Australia “legislating to recognise homesteading rights on celestial bodies” would carry no weight if the rest of the world do not recognise the same. It is as pointless as leiglating to recognise ownership of internatonal waters.

    I met Harrison Schmidt at an airport a few years ago, when he was out spruiking for mining the moon for hydrogen. I even got to sit next to him and hear what it felt like in a Saturn 5 when it burns. Big thrill for a 1960’s NASA groupy like me.

  2. Chris Lloyd says:

    And does Eros need to be owned to be mined? I assume that once you mine the gold and land it on Earth, you won and can sell the gold. So it would come down to which company had the technical advantage in mining. I imagine that any company that could move an asteroid to Earth would already have a sufficient head start in space mining technology to be able to make a good profit. And if some other company can extract some gold from the other side of the asteroid, then good luck to them.

    I do not see that the lack of title to the asteroids is stopping this entrepreneurial activity required to get things started. First mover advantage should be enough incentive. At some stage, when space gets past the initial stages of economic development, it would become a big issue.

  3. Jacques Chester says:

    Chris;

    I’m not supposing we ignore the treaty. I’m saying we withdraw from it, or at least threaten to in order to provoke some movement in this area. As for it being “pointless”, what does it cost us to try? Nothing. What could we gain? Heaps.

    As for Eros, the key word is risk. No company will expose themselves to that kind of risk at the moment. If there’s homesteading rights then it becomes far less risky to actually go and do it. Put yourself in the position of a mining company board: “You mean we could spend billions going there and tugging it back, but could stop wildcatters from attacking our equipment and stealing ore? Bugger that for a laugh”.

  4. Chris Lloyd says:

    OK. Withdraw from the treaty. Nobody will notice. It doesn’t transform us into a smart country with an improved budgetary position.

    What you say about asteroid mining sounds confused and ill-thought out to me Jacques. Risk? Space is inherently risky. The question is whether lack of title to the asteroid is a deal breaker.

    Lets say that Virgin Space Mining spend a billion dollars pulling Eros into earth orbit. Captain Branson sets up mining equipment and starts sending gold containing ore down to Earth/ Or, even better, uses the unique zero-G environment to refine it more efficiently than is possible on Earth. This invention is patent protected. (I reason that patents must be enforceable in space otherwise illegal video downloads would become legal as they bounce off the satellite.)

    What will the wildcatters do? It costs hundred of millions to get up there and set up their equipment on the other side of the asteroid. They are free riding which is annoying but not a deal breaker for Captain Branson. The wildcatters are not stealing; the ore because it is not owned. So saying using this emotive word is a circular argument. Existing law would prevent wildcatters from attacking our equipment. Otherwise, countries would routinely shoot down each others satellites with legal impunity,

    I just dont buy your argument that selling the solar system is a pre-condition to exploiting it. The reason it doesnt happen is that there are just much easier ways to turn a buck that dont involve an uneconomic gravity gradient.

  5. Jacques Chester says:

    The wildcatters are not stealing; the ore because it is not owned.

    I thought you were an economist, not a lawyer. Well played. I don’t think that’s how the parties involved will see it — it’s still quite literally a free rider problem.

    I just dont buy your argument that selling the solar system is a pre-condition to exploiting it. The reason it doesnt happen is that there are just much easier ways to turn a buck that dont involve an uneconomic gravity gradient.

    I don’t buy your argument that we can do without property rights. Point to somewhere on Earth where the absence of property rights and legal structure makes mining and industry cheaper and less risky, if you please.

    With property rights to homesteaders you create a massive incentive to get out and explore. Even if it doesn’t happen right away, it’s better sooner than later. As for the costs of exploration, they are falling all the time as more and more companies begin to enter to field with that very goal in mind.

    Say that Australia proposed a new treaty allowing homesteading of celestial bodies, would you oppose that? If so, why?

  6. Jacques Chester says:

    I should also add that there have been other schemes proposed for celestial bodies — the major alternative would be issuing “shares” to everyone on earth, which could be bid on particular objects. This way, while private ownership will eventually resolve to particular people, cartels and companies; everyone will have taken part in the wealth of space. Would that appeal to you?

  7. Dave Bath says:

    The thing that concerns me is the effective denial of orbits around THIS planet because of occupation by shrapnel. China is the worst offender, but the US isn’t far behind.

  8. Jacques Chester says:

    Dave;

    I purposefully left off “traffic control”, which is a messy beast already partly covered by treaties. It’s another area that needs to be settled in a similar fashion — rights to orbital tracks, rights to occupy volumes at Lagrange points, traversal rights throughout intrasolar space, that sort of thing.

  9. swio says:

    I’d be very reluctant to set about creating the legal infrastructure for space mining before we have a decent idea what the actual infrastructure involved is going to look like. We just as likely to set up situations where property rights impede progress as enhance it. What if all that’s required to establish a claim to an entire asteroid is to plant a flag on it? Someone could spend a relatively small amount of money sticking plastic flags on every piece of mineral that is easily reached from earth. This results in no money being invested in the technology to extract those minerals because of the commercial risk of not getting a reasonably priced mining permit from the one company that actually owns all the easily accessed asteroids.

    Let the companies develop the technology to get us to LEO at reasonable cost first. The lack of space law at the moment is certainly not impeding that. Then get the asteroids properly surveyed in an open manner so that everyone knows what is up there. Then private companies can develop proposals on how they get the stuff down and we can develop space property law around giving them amount of property rights these companies need to operate profitably, and prefably no more than that. If we blindly allow property rights to space based resources we could easily end up with almost all of them owned by a monopoly/oligopoly. Microeconomics 101 says that a monopolist or group of oligopolists are going to exploit those assets as minimally as possible because that is the most profitable thing for them to do.

  10. Chris Lloyd says:

    “Say that Australia proposed a new treaty allowing homesteading of celestial bodies, would you oppose that?” No I wouldn’t. I just don’t see it achieving that much. And I think that the physical barriers to entry to space mining make you comparison with earth mining invalid.

    BTW: “I thought you were an economist..” No need to resort to personal abuse there Jacques. ;) I am actually a mathematical statistician who happens to work in a business school.

  11. Jacques Chester says:

    No offence intended — you post a lot on economic matters, and as a lay person I carelessly conflated the one with the other. Mea culpa.

  12. One thing to keep in mind is that, at least in the case of asteroids, scarcity of raw material is not likely to be a problem for a very, very, very long time.

    It would seem to me that scarcity is much more likely to be an issue when it comes to land area on the Moon and Mars.

    One concern that does occur to me is that if something really scientifically interesting turns up, there should be some provision to protect it from mining – with some compensation to whomever discovered it, of course, so they don’t just quietly bury the equivalent of the dinosaur bones they’ve dug up.

  13. wilful says:

    The greatest single step in the history of humankind […] is waiting for us to shrug off a hangover from another era. And frankly, its about time we did it.

    Hmm, are you really sure that’s what’s holding ’em all back? Nothing to do with the fact that it’s a long way away and really cold? I think you’ve overestimated the current technical capacity of the human race. Give it another 20 years and we can argue over this treaty, and another 20 years after that before the space mines start kicking in.

  14. TFK says:

    Hmmmm. I can’t see the prospect of neatly slipping Eros into Earth or lunar orbit at *any* time in the future using any kind of known energy source.

    On my rough calculation, this thing has a mass of around 6.7*10E15 kg. Moving it from its present orbit in any kind of practical timeframe and (even more to the point) inserting it into a useable orbit when it gets here would require vast amounts of energy to be applied to it. Sourced from what and transferred to the asteriod how?

    I am not saying that this could never be done, just that it is not feasible with any known technology. So you would be looking at a minimum ramp-up time of new technological capacities that puts such a prospect a good way into the future, if it ever proves feasible at all.

    Apart from that, how to you think steering an object 2,500 cubic kilometers in size in the general direction of Earth is likely to be received back home? We can’t even get support for a low level nuclear waste repository in the outback of Australia. Realistically, the chance of such a thing ever being allowed by our timid race is pretty much f-all!

    Having said all of that, I think there are some more fundamental point raised here about property rights in space. Interesting discussion!

    Cheers,
    TFK

  15. Jacques Chester says:

    TFK;

    O’Neill proposed sunlight and mass drivers for moving asteroids. Or you could mine it in situ and use sunlight. Or you can use mirrors to heat up one side causing gas to escape. Or you could reaction mass from other asteroids and burn it off as a conventional rocket. Or you could build ion engines and move it slowly.

    Honestly, there’s plenty of energy and matter to do it with. The key matter is cost and patience. Nobody will do it if they can’t guarantee ownership.

  16. TFK says:

    Hi Jacques,

    Yes, with ion drive propulsion you might eventually perturb the orbit enough for it to pass even closer to the Earth’s orbit than it does now. You would just have to be very, very patient, I guess. Never mind, those minerals have been hanging around waiting for millions of years, they can wait a few decades more! The trouble is, the old ion drive wouldn’t be much good to you in trying to achieve an Earth or lunar orbital insertion. You could always wait for the next time that both objects approach their orbital cross-over point together – but there’s not a lot of wiggle room with those powerful ion engines if small perturbations have made its path of approach extremely dangerous, either!

    The old gas and mirrors trick I am not so sure about. As far as I understand Eros, it has a surface composition similar to chondritic meteorites but with *depleted* volatiles. That is, it is a rather non-gassy rock, probably because it has experienced extreme heat in the past. Short of generating temperatures capable of vapourising silicates (which would require one hell of an accurately focussed mirror) the idea strikes me as a non-starter. Maybe good for a comet nucleus (apart from the kinetic energy that most of these have!), but not Eros.

    I will have to admit that your option of “reaction mass from other asteroids” escapes my understanding completely. I don’t have a clue what you mean. That leaves mining in situ which, despite the huge expense, strikes me as at least feasible with existing technology.

    I think that you are underestimating the technical difficulties of the “Eros Project” with your dismissive statement that “there’s plenty of energy and matter to do it with”. More importantly, I think that using this as anything more than a purely hypothetical example of the very valid issues you are raising detracts from the argument. You can find better examples than capturing a large asteroid into Earth or lunar orbit – eg mining on the moon, which I would not be surprised to see in my lifetime.

    TFK

  17. Jacques Chester says:

    I will have to admit that your option of reaction mass from other asteroids escapes my understanding completely. I dont have a clue what you mean.

    I think O’Neill proposed this as well — drag surplus lunar oxygen out there, mix it with methane, and burn it. But an in situ mass driver is probably the best option, whether to move the asteroid or to send ore bodies to L5 et al.

    I don’t know what the cheapest option would be to mine Eros, or whether it’s worth mining at all in favour of other resources; just as I don’t know the cheapest way to manufacture pencils or how to source the parts for an iMac motherboard. I leave that question to self-interested parties to determine. But before they can do their thing, they will need property rights.

    Thanks for teasing this out though, I’ve certainly found it educational.

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