Cosmic conservation: Why experts argue portions of the solar system should remain untouched

As space mining and colonization become not-so-distant realities, scientists say preservation should be prioritized

Published September 9, 2023 1:59PM (EDT)

Earth as viewed from Mars surface, concept (Getty Images/Nzoka John)
Earth as viewed from Mars surface, concept (Getty Images/Nzoka John)

It's getting increasingly crowded up past our atmosphere, with just of the most recent highlights being India's Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft successfully touching down on the moon's south pole in mid-August while Russia's Luna-25 spacecraft spun out of control and crashed into the moon a week prior. Meanwhile, NASA scientists are scoping out alien rivers on Mars and Elon Musk continues to fantasize about constructing a Martian village.

While space missions have the potential to gather invaluable information about the composition of other planetary bodies that can help us better understand our place in the universe, they also come with environmental costs. Tens of thousands of pieces of space junk, including discarded pieces of spacecraft or debris, are currently floating around the solar system. Startups are already eyeing the moon and asteroids as potential locations to mine for metals. And Russia's failed mission literally left a sizable 10-meter crater on the moon.

It's only a matter of time before humans begin extracting resources in large quantities from space, and we need to protect a portion of our solar system as wilderness before that happens, says Tony Milligan, Ph.D., a philosopher at King's College London, who authored a paper addressing this with Martin Elvis, Ph.D., an astrophysicist at Harvard University.

"The idea that, 'There's a lot of the solar system there, there's no need to worry about it,' felt like the American mistake all over again," Milligan told Salon in a video call. "Which was, 'Well, this is a big country, there's never going to be a problem.' But before you know it, there's big competition for resources and the exponential growth becomes a big problem for everyone."

"The idea that, 'There's a lot of the solar system there, there's no need to worry about it,' felt like the American mistake all over again."

The Wilderness Act of 1964 defined wilderness as "an area where the Earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain." Indigenous populations had already been co-existing with wilderness areas for millennia when this act was passed, but the heavy carbon footprint of colonization had seriously depleted resources. The idea was to keep parts of natural landscapes protected from extraction — untouched and pristine.

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In forests on Earth, even small patches of wilderness can serve as vital refuges for sensitive wildlife, allowing the land to restore itself if neighboring habitats are disturbed. Anyone who has stood deep in a forest, where machinery is prohibited and cell service is absent, can tell you there is intrinsic value in this raw stillness. One can only imagine the value of the stillness that could be experienced when visiting an untouched planetary body in our solar system.

"When we encounter something like the Blue Canyon [on Earth] … we want to protect it and the environment," Milligan said. "Treating the moon and Mars as quarries is such a limited view."

"Treating the moon and Mars as quarries is such a limited view."

There are already protocols in place to ensure humans don't contaminate the Moon or other planetary bodies when exploring them. At the dawn of the space age in 1958, the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) was created to set standards that ensured planetary protection, with the agency serving as a kind of space guardian. In 1967, leading space race countries signed the Outer Space Treaty organized by the United Nations, which provides the basic framework for international space law. More recently in 2020, NASA published the Artemis Accords with seven other nations detailing our responsibilities to preserve outer space.

It's crucial to protect these planetary bodies because they can tell us so much about our own planet, said Athena Coustenis, Ph.D., chair of COSPAR's Panel for Planetary Protection. For example, exploring Venus helps us understand the greenhouse effect and could provide us with insights into how to protect Earth from global warming. However, natural climate patterns observed on Venus could be interrupted if humans contaminated it or began extracting elements that disrupted its natural composition, which happens plenty on this planet.

"We learn how our planet came to be, what it is, but more importantly, what it could become," Coustenis told Salon in a video call. "If we aren't careful about protecting our scientific capital, our scientific investment, in space, then we don't learn these things. We may just go on and destroy our planet."

Using patterns in population growth and how humans have previously exploited resources, Elvis and Milligan suggest that a maximum of one-eighth of the asteroid belt be mined for iron in the coming centuries and that the remaining seven-eighths be protected. If the demand for iron continues to grow at a similar rate as it has been since the Industrial Revolution, they calculate that humans could use more than a million times more than all of the iron ore reserves currently on Earth within 400 years. 

"Once you go past that, you're on a very rapid road to using it all and therefore having an enormous economic crisis," Elvis told Salon in a video call. "It's like a tripwire. It's a warning."

For some, inhabiting other planetary bodies in our solar system is a question of "when," not "if." Anticipating that different stakeholders will race to monetize resources on the moon, Mars and beyond — based on human beings' track record — Elvis says these questions of preservation need to be considered beforehand to avoid conflict. After all, just 2.7% of the contiguous U.S. remains protected as designated wilderness today.

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The goal is to be more conservative this time around, using what we have learned about resource depletion here on Earth, Elvis said.

"Population growth and climate change are instances of unchecked exponential growth," the study states. "Each places strains upon our available resources, each is a recognized problem that we would like to control, but attempts to do so at this comparatively late stage in their development have not been encouraging."

By Elizabeth Hlavinka

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Asteroids Climate Climate Change Deep Dive Science Space Space Exploration Space Mining Wilderness