Last week Deep Space Industries potentially sparked a new space-race by becoming the second company to announce plans to exploit the untapped resources of near-Earth asteroids.
Deep Space Industries face stiff competition from Planetary Resources, who announced similar plans last year and boasts high-profile supporters including Eric Schmidt and James Cameron.
DSI plan to use the water found on asteroids to make fuel for satellites and spacecraft, refueling them in orbit, and to use new 3D printer technology to build components from metals for construction in space. What all this points towards is a more permanent human presence in space, with mining, industry and possibly colonies in the long term. Despite there being almost no market for asteroid metals currently, DSI plan to create that demand by being one of the first companies to supply extra-terrestrial resources.
Space tourism has set a precedent for extra-terrestrial industries, and could be the forerunner of a much more expansive and lucrative economy to emerge outside of Earth's atmosphere, one that could really take-off (excuse the pun) once the initial infrastructure is in place.
Many people will react to this news in an understandable yet predictable way, and it will go something like this:
"Why are we spending money on space exploration when there are people starving here on Earth?"
The point is entirely valid, and I think solving Earthly problems should be our priority as a species, as caring for our planet is the surest way to ensure our survival.
Hunger, poverty and climate change seem like they should be higher on our collective agenda than doing Bruce Willis impressions on bits of space rock.
But what if we have already done so much damage to our planet that there is no turning back?
The Arctic is melting, sea levels are rising and the planet is warming. We have already seen signs that our weather is becoming more extreme- hurricanes have become bigger and more dangerous, with Sandy becoming the biggest Atlantic hurricane on record. A few years earlier, Katrina showed us how hurricanes can flatten whole communities. Bush-fires in Australia are exaggerated by climate change, turning whole swathes of land into blazing infernos. With rising sea levels, tsunamis become a threat to whole cities, as the Fukushima disaster shows. There is even the possibility that global warming could affect volcanic activity.
Now I don't want to be needlessly alarmist, but there is at least the possibility that we have done irrevocable damage to our planet, and continue to do so through carbon emissions, which don't show signs of slowing down. It is as least possible that conditions on our Earth's surface may become so extreme that they threaten our survival as a species.
They say that Mars once had flowing rivers, oceans and an atmosphere. Mars should be proof to us that a planet can in effect 'die'. In this context, it makes sense for humanity to extend itself beyond the bounds of our earth, and for colonies to become self sufficient, in the event that the Earth can no longer be depended on. If a large asteroid was discovered heading towards Earth tomorrow, without a self-sufficient space presence, that could spell the end for humankind. As the saying goes, "don't put all your eggs in one basket." If this all sounds a bit sci-fi to you, let me remind you that climate conditions and asteroid impacts have been causes of mass extinctions in our Earth's past.
Aside from hedging our bets to insure our survival, the idea of space exploration inspires a childlike fascination and enthusiasm in us all. This playful ambition to know and to discover is at the heart of what it is to be human, and it should be cultivated and encouraged. It is this spirit of discovery that drove humanity's progress during some of the most lauded periods of discovery in our history, and with our economic system in a slump, this burst of new businesses, new resources and new services that could emerge from space could be just what the economy needs to get back on track.
Since the end of the cold war, state space programs have had budgets cut and suffered from fragmentation without an obvious common goal. Private companies like DSI may have to lay the foundations and do what governments can't or won't do in our current economic climate.
The economic systems that we have in place on Earth are based on continual expansion and growth on a planet with finite resources. Water and metals harvested from asteroids and light from the stars harnessed as energy could be considered effectively infinite resources, until we outgrow our solar system. The alternative is to be bound to the fate of a planet that it may be too late to save. It is time humanity took its destiny into its own hands and boldly embraced its future in space.