The new Wild West — outer space

Currently there are five companies building and strategizing rocket systems to go and mine the asteroid belt. Anything bigger than a tennis court that they dislodge — that could fall out of orbit and impact the Earth — would take out a large city. Anything the size of a NASCAR oval could spell the end of life on Earth as we know it. And to mine the minerals and resources on these asteroids they need to move them close to Earth.

Now, why should you care? It’s good free-enterprise commerce, no? Well, perhaps, but as we all know, until regulations are put into place, new experimental procedures — good commerce or not  —  cause disasters. The Titanic comes to mind. As does the Hindenburg. As do hundreds of people trapped in sub-standard buildings that pancaked down when an earthquake hit.

As do hundreds of plane crashes, each one reviewed for cause of accident, new rules put in place and air travel slowly became safer. You may not know that one plane crash was caused by a faulty bolt, resulting in 350 lives lost. But next time you get onto a wide-body plane, you can be assured that the investigators saved your bacon finding out that sub-standard bolts must be regulated as “not to be used” to prevent the cargo door opening at altitude.

Who is going to regulate space and space enterprise? The UN has an agency, located in Vienna, that coordinates all space use but they have no regulatory authority beyond reminding nations of their signed treaties. Those are national, governmental treaties. Name me one international treaty that covers private companies. Nope, there are none. Here those operate under US laws which, presumably, the US government keeps in accord with the international space treaties we entered into since the Eisenhower days.

But many companies, often start-ups and mavericks, want part of the space financial pie and they are not willing to abide by US oversight. If they can get it into orbit, good luck to the US government reining them in. Several nations now have the capability to launch objects into space — Japan, Brazil, France, Italy, Great Britain, China, Russia, Australia... the list is growing. And some of those nations are very happy to take payment for a piggy-back cargo into low Earth orbit. When you couple their willingness and the micro electronics’ capabilities these days, you can see a whole host of miniaturized satellites (called Small Sats) getting the lift to orbit. India recently lifted off on Jan. 12 with their own Earth-imaging payload as well as 30 secondary payloads doing no one knows what — including four for a U.S. startup Swarm, titled Space-BEE 1 to 4, all designed for a private computer to computer communications network. Curt Blake, the president of Seattle-based Spaceflight, arranged the ride and said, “We arranged for the four launches. The FCC is looking into the matter. It’s for them to deal with.” In other words, like the Old West, stake a claim and fight about it later. Pistols at high noon.

The issue facing NORAD (who track all this stuff being put into orbit), is determining which pose a threat to existing national spaceflight programs, which are doing what with whom (spy satellites are a constant DOD problem) and, always, the “higher ground” argument every military commander appreciates.

And the issue gets more complicated when, for example, Swarm’s founder Sara Spangelo wanted to launch a whole bunch of really small satellites, each less than 4 inches in diameter. How the heck can those be tracked? Remember they are traveling at over 15,000 miles per hour. Impact with that sort of energy, is fatal. Her request was denied by the FCC, so they went to India and got the launch anyway.

Now, extrapolate the whole argument for the real “49er Miners” mentality going after the asteroids and bringing them back closer to Earth. One company even says they can split the big asteroids into tennis court sized chunks and aim them at the ocean to catch them on a fixed trajectory. Oh, sure, what could go wrong? The problem we’re facing, made worse by US isolationism currently spewing out of the Administration, is that safe space regulation needs to be world-wide. That’s hardly likely currently especially set against the “America first” policy promoting commercialization of all things space.

Peter Riva, a former resident of Amenia Union, now lives in New Mexico.