Scientists propose plan to protect solar system from mining ‘gold rush’

13 May 2019

Image: © Sergey Drozdov/

Taking future-proofing to a new level, scientists hope to protect the resources of much of the solar system from mining by humans.

In the same way that we have reserved sections of the planet as protected sites free from human activities, a pair of scientists want to save some parts of the solar system from opportunist miners of the future.

According to The Guardian, they are calling for more than 85pc of the solar system to be cordoned off to any human influence, with the remaining section available for colonisation and mining. While protecting these worlds from excessive human influence is a major part of the plan, it is mostly to prevent humans from using up all the resources in our galactic neighbourhood.

“If we don’t think about this now, we will go ahead as we always have, and in a few hundred years we will face an extreme crisis, much worse than we have on Earth now,” said Martin Elvis, a senior astrophysicist at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. “Once you’ve exploited the solar system, there’s nowhere left to go.”

Elvis, along with research partner Tony Milligan of King’s College London, looked into how fast humans could use up the vast amount of resources found in the most accessible parts of our solar system.

They estimated that at an annual growth rate of 3.5pc, humanity would use up approximately one-eighth of its resources in 400 years’ time. We would then be left with a situation where we would have just 60 years to reverse this rate of consumption or face being left stranded in an empty, cold solar system.

Is it OK to mine Saturn?

The vast majority of desired resources – such as iron, platinum and even water – could come from the many asteroids found in our region of space. This would be a far more realistic resource-gathering operation than, say, trying to extract anything from Jupiter or the sun.

Elvis and Milligan are now attempting to decide which areas of the solar system should be deemed conservation areas, something easier said than done.

“Do we want cities on the near side of the moon that light up at night? Would that be inspiring or horrifying?” Elvis said. “And what about the rings of Saturn? They are beautiful, almost pure water ice. Is it OK to mine those so that in 100 years they are gone?”

A number of companies are already working towards mining their first asteroid and bringing back a lucrative haul. Estimates suggest that asteroids have reserves of iron millions of times greater than Earth, in addition to the rarest of minerals.

The scientists will document their findings in an upcoming issue of Acta Astronautica.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic