Cosmos is big, as a famous writer put it.Douglas Adams. Compared to the boundaries of our own planet, the space of the solar system is absurdly large. The idea that we can deplete her enormous reserves seems almost ridiculous. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos touched on this topic on May 9 during a presentation on Blue Moon, the lunar landing module of his space company. “If we go to the solar system, we will get unlimited resources for all practical purposes,” said the billionaire.
How many resources in the solar system?
And yet, one of the latest researchshows that at current growth rates, humanity can practically exhaust most of the available wealth in our stellar region in less than five centuries. In order to prevent an interplanetary cosmic crisis, the study's co-authors suggest that our civilization must somehow develop stable space exploration practices, in theory highlighting more than seven-eighths of our star system as a “reserve zone”. The results of their work were published in the journal Acta Astronautica.
Research co-author Martin Elvis, a scientist fromThe Center for Astrophysics at Harvard University and the Smithsonian Institution a few years ago wondered how much metallic resources could be extracted from the asteroid belt between Jupiter and Mars. Although asteroids are difficult to access, in many other respects they seem to be ideal sources of iron and other heavy metals, since small, easily mined packages of cosmic stones contain fairly large amounts of ore. Elvis estimates that this belt contains a million times more reserves of iron than is available on Earth.
The only question is how long it will take to use all this wealth. “I was hoping that the answer would be something like 10,000 years. Turned out to be 400, ”says Elvis.
The problem is exponential growth. As if in a population of prolific rabbits, the rate of human consumption quickly increased many times over short periods of time. Assuming that the space economy will maintain an annual growth rate of 3.5 percent — analogous to an increase in iron use after the industrial revolution — we can assume that one-eighth of the asteroid belt resources will be depleted in four centuries.
The eighth part may not seem sobig, but Elvis and his colleague Tony Milligan consider this a turning point. After overcoming this threshold, the potentially insatiable needs of mankind in metals will double every 20 years. This means that first a quarter, then half, and finally, the entire reserve in the asteroid belt will be used - in just the next six decades.
Of course, the concept of uncontrolled expansionused before, with its help, earthlings were promised tremendous wealth in the future, from the time of Thomas Robert Malthus. In 1894, a forecast based on the number of horses needed to move the population of London in five decades suggested that every street in the city would end up buried under nine pounds of manure. However, the advent of cars has made this gloomy forecast controversial.
Elvis and Milligan are not interested inbecome modern forerunners of Malthusian catastrophes. But even if the predictions based on the exponential index will be naive, the wider argument of the scientists is that the resources at the last line, as elsewhere, have their limitations. Milligan points out that the vast territory and wealth of the North American continent also seemed inexhaustible to the people of the 19th century.
“We saw this film, and we didn’t like the final,” he says. "At first, everything seems big, but after a while it turns out to be not so big."
Scientists say that if the limit is reachedone eighth, an attempt to reorient an economy that is millions of times larger than the current Earthly one, for some half a century, will be extremely difficult - especially if corporations and other corporate stakeholders shovel huge profits. A more sensible approach would be to avoid reaching this point, perhaps proclaiming the vast majority of the solar system to be inaccessible from the outset.
Recycling materials can extend the timenecessary to exhaust the metallic wealth of the solar system, but it cannot last forever. In his speech, Bezos designated trillions of people living and working on giant rotating space stations - O’Neal habitat. As the metal is added to these structures, the crews of these outposts will protest against any attempts to dismantle their homes for scrap.
The embodiment of the principle proposed by scientists inpractical measures are still under development. First of all, says Elvis, we need to accurately assess how many useful resources the solar system contains. Is it necessary to take into account the total surface area of Mars and the Moon? What about the huge gas reserves (or metal-rich nuclei) of worlds like Jupiter and Neptune? Perhaps places with great natural splendor or interesting science, such as the giant Valles Marineris canyon on Mars, will always be closed. Similarly, it would be a shame to consider the reserves of water ice in the beautiful rings of Saturn open to exploration.
Mastering the rings of Saturn?
Elvis and Milligan want their ideas to beflexible and included tradeoffs. If the plans of SpaceX CEO Ilona Mask to bring the settlers to Mars are not crowned with success, perhaps the first settlers would agree not to touch most of this world. But if the colony is still built, residents will have to capture more than one-eighth of the planet. Perhaps a large proportion of the asteroid belt - or some other, more desirable and valuable property of the solar system - could gain protected status.
Economists should be the first to join the debate.and politicians. Experts from the closed society of space flight also argue on the topic of the findings of scientists. Some say it’s too early to discuss it.
In any case, the principles of one generation are notalways perceived by people from the next generation, and even if Milligan says he would be surprised if people lived for a century or two in accordance with modern beliefs. At the same time, many great projects in the history of mankind have been spread over many generations.
Now is the time to start thinking about howprovide a fair outcome for those who will live after us. That makes sense. In his optimistic vision, Bezos argued that the promise of the near-bottom wealth of the solar system would provide us with a brighter future than the stagnation that comes if we remain attached to our limited Earth. But Bezos could be wrong. Because even in infinity we need to practice self-control.
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