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.
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.