The Ethics and Economics of Asteroid Mining (and the Role for Law)

by Chris Borgen

Over at Discover.com, Brian Lamb reports on a lecture by Brother Guy Consolmagno, SJ, an American Jesuit who is a research astronomer for the Vatican Observatory (and has archived blog posts here). On the issue of asteroid mining (which we tangentially touched upon in this discussion on legal issues related to mining the Moon), Lamb describes the opening of  Brother Consolmagno’s argument:

Can you put a price tag on an asteroid? Sure you can. We know of roughly 750 S-class asteroids with a diameter of at least 1 kilometer. Many of these pass as near to the Earth as our own moon — close enough to reach via spacecraft. As a typical asteroid is 10 percent metal, Brother Consolmango estimates that such an asteroid would contain 1 billion metric tons of iron. That’s as much as we mine out of the globe every year, a supply worth trillions and trillions of dollars. Subtract the tens of billions it would cost to exploit such a rock, and you still have a serious profit on your hands.

Let me interject here on the economic incentives of asteroid mining. A 1997 review of a the book Mining the Sky by John S. Lewis (then-co-director of the NASA/University of Arizona Space Engineering Research Center ) noted that Lewis estimated that the main asteroid belt contains about:

825 quintillion (a billion times a billion) tons of iron – enough to build shells around planets, gigantic cities in space, and starships carrying entire civilizations. How much is this iron worth? Lewis performs a fanciful calculation: At present prices of around $50 a ton [that was in 1997], the asteroids yield $7 billion of the metal per person for everyone alive today, or an affluent standard of living for a population far larger. Moreover, iron is merely one element found in the Main Belt, which also contains gold, silver, copper, manganese, titanium, uranium, and much else.

So there may be substantial economic incentives to investing in asteroid mining. But, picking up now with Lamb’s precis of Brother Consolmagno’s lecture:

But is this ethical? Brother Consolmango asked us to ponder whether such an asteroid harvest would drastically disrupt the economies of resource-exporting nations. What would happen to most of Africa? What would it do to the cost of iron ore? And what about refining and manufacturing? If we spend the money to harvest iron in space, why not outsource the other related processes as well? Imagine a future in which solar-powered robots toil in lunar or orbital factories.

“On the one hand, it’s great,” Brother Consolmango said. “You’ve now taken all of this dirty industry off the surface of the Earth. On the other hand, you’ve put a whole lot of people out of work. If you’ve got a robot doing the mining, why not another robot doing the manufacturing? And now you’ve just put all of China out of work. What are the ethical implications of this kind of major shift?”

Brother Consolmango also stressed that we have the technology to begin such a shift today; we’d just need the economic and political will to do it. Will our priorities change as Earth-bound resources become more and more scarce?

Referring back to our discussion of mining the Moon, some commentors balked at the need (or utility) of a legal regime for mining on the Moon.  I think these quotes from the review of Lewis’s book and the summary of Bother Consolmagno’s lecture show why law will have a very important role in any attempts at exploiting resources in space. In short: the significant economic incentives may not only spur private development but also lead to significant socio-economic effects (not all of them good) here on Earth. It is not a stretch to foresee that unbridled resource exploitation by certain companies may be viewed as a threat by some countries. This is a whole new gloss on the term “political risk.” It also shows why setting out some basic norms and “rules of the road” would be a prudent investment. Pun intended.

Hat tip: io9

http://opiniojuris.org/2010/02/21/the-ethics-and-economics-of-asteroid-mining-and-the-role-for-law/

6 Responses

  1. Huh.  I wonder how one might apply the Coase Theorem here … I wonder if I could turn this into a mighty cool final exam question for 1L intro to law and econ?

  2. The problem is calculating its worth at a more realistic price of say $10,000 a ton.

    Is there sufficient demand at that price?

    As for the ‘shift’, haven’t we been there before? I seem to recall learning about a time in which cars <strike>were built by hand</strike> weren’t built at all!

  3. Brother Consolmango believes that people will lose jobs if there is the kind of shift in production and manufacture he is talking about. I believe similar apprehensions were attached with advent of computers – people thought computers will cause a lot of job loss. In reality, it created more jobs than were lost.

    If there is more resources in our society, we just have to ensure it goes around and doesnt accumulate in hands of only a few. Some people could get more rich than others, but i believe even the poorest will also get richer if there is such a great infusion of wealth in the society, as long as the economic forces of the market is allowed to work fairly.

  4. What present-day options exist for getting the iron to Earth, other than de-orbiting it into Earth’s atmosphere?

    It would seem to me you’d need a space elevator and an orbital smelter before it’d be much use to anyone, or a moon base.

    If you want private industry to do this, there’s the matter of the truly astronomical amount of capital that’d be needed up front…

  5. Near Earth Objects or NEOs (most of which are asteroids) were the subject of the University of Nebraska College of Law’s Third Annual Space Law Conference last May.  The conference focused mainly on the risks of asteroids, specifically steps that might be taken to mitigate these risks as well as legal rules for deciding which way to deflect an asteroid/how to destroy an asteroid.   However, there was also some limited discussion of opportunities (e.g. mining) presented by NEOs.  Nations’ ability to “view” NEOs is increasing everyday and that is why the known number continues to increase (and the awareness of the risk continues to increase).  NEO impact with Earth will always be a low probability but potentially devasting effect-type event.  There is a report arising out of that conference that was just presented in Vienna to the United Nations Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS).  It is available at http://spacenadtelecomlaw.unl.edu

    The report keeps open the possibility of using nuclear weapons to deystory an asteroid from impacting Earth in a devasting manner.

    For those interested in looking at a couple of recent “near passes” by asteroids, go to NASA’s jet propulsion laboratory web site at http://neo.jpl.nasa.gov/

    Like many areas of public policy, international relations, and international law, there are risk and rewards and cost/benefit analysis to be undertaken.

  6. sorry website for report is at

    http://spaceandtelecomlaw.unl.edu

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