This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Encyclopedia of Planetary Science. Please check back later for the full article.
Emergence of ballistic missile technology after the Second World War enabled human flight into Earth’s orbit, fueling the imagination of those fascinated with science, technology, exploration, and adventure. The performance of astronauts in the early flights assuaged concerns about the functioning of “the human system” in the absence of normal gravity. However, researchers in space medicine have observed degradation of crews after longer exposure to the space environment and have developed countermeasures for most of them, although significant challenges remain. With the dawn of the 21st century, well-financed and technically competent commercial entities began to provide more affordable alternatives to historically expensive and risk-averse government-funded programs. Space’s growing accessibility has encouraged entrepreneurs to pursue plans for potentially autarkic communities beyond Earth, exploiting natural resources on other worlds. Should such dreams prove to be technically and economically feasible, a new era will open for humanity with concomitant societal issues of a revolutionary nature.
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Planetary Science. Please check back later for the full article.
The space and multitude of celestial bodies surrounding Earth hold a vast wealth of resources for a variety of space and terrestrial applications. The unlimited solar energy, vacuum, and low gravity in space, as well as the minerals, metals, water, atmospheric gases, and volatile elements on the Moon, asteroids, comets, and the inner and outer planets of the Solar System and their moons, constitute potential valuable resources for robotic and human space missions and for future use in our own planet. In the short term, these resources could be transformed into useful materials at the site where they are found to extend mission duration and to reduce the costly dependence from materials sent from Earth. Making propellants and human consumables from local resources can significantly reduce mission mass and cost, enabling longer stays and fueling transportation systems for use within and beyond the planetary surface. Use of finely grained soils and rocks can serve for habitat construction, radiation protection, solar cell fabrication, and food growth. The same material could also be used to develop repair and replacement capabilities using advanced manufacturing technologies. Following similar mining practices utilized for centuries on Earth, identifying, extracting, and utilizing extraterrestrial resources will enable further space exploration, while increasing commercial activities beyond our planet. In the long term, planetary resources and solar energy could also be brought to Earth if obtaining these resources locally prove to be no longer economically or environmentally acceptable.
Throughout human history, resources have been the driving force for the exploration and settling of our planet. Similarly, extraterrestrial resources will make space the next destination in the quest for further exploration and expansion of our species. However, just like on Earth, not all challenges are scientific and technological. As private companies start working toward exploiting the resources from asteroids, the Moon, and Mars, an international legal framework is also needed to regulate commercial exploration and the use of space and planetary resources for the benefit of all humanity. These resources hold the secret to unleash an unprecedented wave of exploration and of economic prosperity by utilizing the full potential and value of space. It is up to us humans here on planet Earth to find the best way to use these extraterrestrial resources effectively and responsibly to make this promise a reality.