Credit: Space HD Wallpapers


How much of the Solar System should we leave as wilderness – off-limits to human development?

That’s the question tackled by Harvard astrophysicist Martin Elvis and Tony Milligan at the Department of Theology and Religious Studies, King’s College London.

Yes, the Solar System is big, the researchers admit. It is so big, they add, that the idea that humans may fully exploit and deplete its resources seems ridiculous.

“Yet if a true economy emerges in space it will start to make use of the vast yet finite resources of the Moon, Mars and small Solar System bodies (such as asteroids). We have no good reason to believe that such an off-world economy would behave in a radically different way from terrestrial economies and the latter (as we know) grow exponentially,” Elvis and Milligan write.

Artist’s illustration of astronauts at an asteroid as well as other mining and transportation vehicles operating in space.
Credit: TransAstra Corporation & Anthony Longman

They make a general argument that, as a matter of fixed policy, development should be limited to one eighth, with the remainder set aside. It is prudent to adopt a “1/8 Principle” as a tripwire, they suggest; do not exploit greater than 1/8 of the solar system.

Unchecked growth

In summary, Elvis and Milligan observe while we remain dependent upon the resources present inside the Solar System, and while economic growth remains exponential, we should regard, at most, one-eighth of the solar system as humanities to use. “The remaining seven-eighths of the solar system should be left as space wilderness,” they contend.

Newly developed extraction technique for the Moon, thermal mining, makes use of mirrors to exploit sun-shy, water ice-laden polar craters.
Credit: School of Mines/Dreyer, Williams, Sowers

“Failure to do so will mean that future generations will have insufficient ‘breaking distance’ after only a few centuries of exponentially growing economic activity/resource utilization,” they conclude. “If unchecked, such growth will tend towards a point of super-exploitation, i.e. a situation of resource depletion where new resources cannot readily be brought into use, even in an emergency situation. The dangers of super-exploitation, for a space-faring civilization whose limits are set by the bounds of a single solar system, are too great to be set aside.”

A practical upshot of the proposed approach by Elvis and Milligan is that we need to inventory the resources of the Solar System carefully and at a sufficiently early point in time in order to know just what lies out there.

Their research paper – “How much of the solar system should we leave as wilderness?” –is available in Acta Astronautica, sponsored by the International Academy of Astronautics.

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