Friday, December 5, 2008

The next capitalist frontier (2008)

The Material World column from the December 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard

Over the last few centuries, one region of the planet after another has been “opened up” to capitalist plunder. Often rival capitalist powers fought over the spoils of conquest. In the 19th century they had the “scramble for Africa.” In the 21st they are scrambling to control the resources of the Arctic, which global warming and technological advance are making accessible to exploitation (Socialist Standard, September 2007).

Once the Arctic and Antarctic are brought fully under the sway of capital, what next? Won’t that be the end of the story, the closing of the last frontier? There remains space, to be sure. But won’t the costs of extracting resources and transporting them to Earth be prohibitive? So you might think.
In fact, the strategists of the six powers that now have active space programs – the United States, Russia, the European Union, China, India, and Japan – already have their sights on the commercial and military potential of the cosmos.

On 22 October India launched the Chandrayaan-1 satellite, and on 11 November it entered Moon orbit. One of its main tasks is to map deposits of Helium-3 (He-3). This isotope, used together with deuterium (H-2), is the optimal fuel for nuclear fusion: in particular, it minimises radioactive emissions. It is very rare on Earth – according to one estimate, only 30 kg is available – because the solar wind that carries it is blocked by the Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field. The dust and rocks in the Moon’s surface layer contain millions of tonnes of the stuff.

It has been calculated that a single shuttle flight bearing a load of 25 tonnes (currently valued at $100 billion) would meet energy demand in India for several years or in the US for one year, while three flights a year would suffice for the world (Guardian, 21 October; Tribune, 23 October).

The main problem is extracting the He-3 as gas from the lunar soil. This requires heating the soil to a temperature of 800ºC. in furnaces or towers, using solar power. (Silicon for solar cells is also abundant on the Moon.) To collect enough gas for one load, it would be necessary to process 360,000 tonnes of soil. Nevertheless, technologically this is believed to be feasible; modern furnaces do actually process such huge quantities of material. Some specialists question whether it would be economically feasible to strip mine the Moon in this way.

Despite uncertainties, Indian strategists hope that the Chandrayaan-1 satellite will enable India to “stake a priority claim” on He-3 resources when lunar colonization begins (SkyNews). India’s main rivals in this field appear to be the US, which has “re-energised” its Moon program and plans to establish a manned base by 2020, and also China.

Enough for everyone?
Given the abundant supply of He-3 relative to foreseeable demand, why should India need to compete with other space powers for preferential access? Surely there is more than enough for everyone.

Yes, but some locations on the Moon’s surface are much better for mining than others. Finding the best locations is the main aim of satellite exploration.

First, the nature of the terrain will obviously matter when building bases and installations, whether operated by human workers or robots. It will be a great advantage to have water (ice) available nearby.

Second, it will be least expensive to work in areas where deposits are richest, where the smallest amount of soil has to be processed for each unit of gas extracted.

Third, reliance on solar power for soil heating (and other purposes) puts a premium on those parts of the lunar surface which are exposed to sunlight for most of the time.

These are also the warmest regions (by lunar standards). An example is the Shackleton Crater at the South Pole. India is especially interested in this area, and it is also here that the US wants to establish its base.

Militarisation of the Moon?
Certain places on the Moon are already thought of as “strategic locations.” Thus, the topography of Malapert Mountain makes it an ideal spot for a radio relay station. Near the Shackleton Crater, it enhances the strategic value of the crater area.

Considerations of this kind will become more important in the event of the Moon’s militarisation. This may happen as a result of competition for land and resources on the Moon itself. Or it may happen simply as an extension of existing military preparations: lunar stations may serve as reserve command centres for wars on Earth.

Even if international agreements are reached to constrain the process of militarisation and divide the lunar surface into zones belonging to the various space powers, military threats may arise from “dual use” technologies. Let us suppose, for instance, that instead of mining He-3 a space power decides to generate electricity on the Moon using solar cells and transmit it on microwave beams to a receiving station on Earth. The problem – under capitalism – is that these same beams may equally well be used as powerful weapons against Earth targets.

There will also be potential conflict between the space powers and other countries that for one reason or another are unable to compete in this sphere. Like the club of nuclear weapons states, the space powers may constitute themselves as an exclusive club and think up a rationale for joint efforts to thwart “space power proliferation,” that is, to prevent other countries from acquiring space capabilities. The two clubs will, of course, largely overlap.

Space programs and socialism
It is absurd for humanity to venture into the cosmos while still divided into rival states and still dominated by primitive mechanisms like capital accumulation. Even the first people in space, almost half a century ago, could see that our planet is a single fragile system.

A world socialist community will have to decide which elements of existing space programmes to retain and which to freeze or abandon. National programmes that are retained will be merged into global programmes, eliminating the wasteful duplication inherent in the competition among space powers. Ambitious programs of purely scientific interest may be deferred pending the solution of more urgent problems.

Attitudes in a socialist world toward reliance on space activities may diverge quite widely. Some people may wish to enjoy the benefits of a complex high-consumption lifestyle made possible by He-3 fuel for nuclear fusion and other off-Earth technologies. Others may prefer to avoid the irreducible risks of a space-dependent strategy and solve Earth’s problems here on Earth, at least to whatever extent this proves possible.