Colonizing Space: Staking & Jumping Claims
This video is sponsored by CuriosityStream. Get access to my streaming video service, Nebula, when you sign up for CuriosityStream using the link in the description. Many of our ancestors risked everything to try to make lives for themselves far from where they were born, staking a claim on some unsettled bit of land. Perhaps our descendants will as well.
So it’s Scifi Sunday again here on SFIA, where we look at popular concepts from science fiction and ask how they might function in the real future and I thought for this afternoon we’d take a look at how folks would actually go about claiming asteroids, planets, whole solar systems, or even potentially galaxies or uninhabited Parallel Universes. And the immediate worry about that, once you’ve gone and staked a claim on some nice rock you’re going to mine for space gold, is someone sneaking in and jumping your claim. Or for that matter strolling in to serve you some official papers saying your rock is their rock, or just kicking your teeth in and taking it by force. They might be pirates or hired thugs or the legitimate new
owners sending in their military – for a given interpretation of the word legitimate obviously. It probably goes without saying that any race into space is likely to involve a lot of folks heading out hoping to make a buck or a new home or both, and the morality of them, their neighbors, their own governments, and rival governments, is likely to play a huge role in how this goes down. There’s a lot of legit reason to worry about equality of access to space, with the sheer entry cost to get a space program running, though the good news is space is huge compared to humanity. Nonetheless we are likely to see many of the classic dynamics of colonizing and pioneering arise, good and ill. New spaces open up and people flock to them, often even if someone’s already
there, either having staked a claim earlier or even much, much earlier, like an indigenous group displaced by conquerors or colonists. Again though, space is huge, and appears to be uninhabited for thousands if not millions of light years, so for the next several millennia we probably don’t have to worry about encountering natives, or even other intelligent life except for earlier human colonists, or human creations like artificial intelligence or engineered or uplifted lifeforms. But this could still cause issues, since even vastly abundant and widely available resources have logistical nightmares, mess-ups, and flat out corruption in their distribution. We have plenty of historical examples of the kind of problems that even something seemingly minor such as free land grants can cause. The Homestead Act, signed into law by Abraham Lincoln in 1862, gave citizens and future citizens the ability to claim as much as 160 acres of public land, so long as they lived on it, improved it, and paid a small registration fee. The Homestead act
and its siblings resulted in millions of acres and millions of immigrants settling new areas, and indeed new Homesteading policies in the US didn’t come until the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976. All that being said, it seems like a solid basis to use as one of our main examples for today. In many ways, those Homestead Acts are what made the US what it is today, and their history is a long and glorious mess of courage, corruption, creation, theft, honor, treachery, generosity, greed, dreams, and nightmares. I’m no historian
so I’ll leave it to our better qualified colleagues to discuss that, but as probably the largest and best recorded example of this sort of expansion effort, it’s a good example today. It is entirely possible that future acquisition of space will be a tightly controlled and regulated effort, or a well administered one. We really are much better at logistics and administration than we used to be, especially with computers, and we get better every day. However the scale of space is to previous expansion efforts on this planet what this planet is to a single lone house on it, so it seems likely to be a bit of a mess, especially given that everything in space moves, constantly, not like a map. And even the annually shifting edges of many a river or creek has caused huge problems in determining who claimed what.
Now there’s a lot of ways to colonize space but Homesteading is our main perspective for today because it also is common in science fiction, indeed an awful lot of scifi from the 20th century was just stories of pioneering the Wild West with aliens and laser pistols substituted in. We should probably take a moment to define what homesteading is though, especially since the term is in common use in the United States in recent years with a variation, as more of lifestyle choice inspired by that history. That lifestyle is of self-sufficiency, in whole or part, and in many different versions and flavors, and comes from the original attraction of these homestead grants. Here is a giant bit of land in the middle of nowhere that you may have if you go live there and improve it. You can buy it and not live there, sometimes, or pay someone else to improve it, but to get it free, or for some small registration fee or the equivalent of Earnest money, you go there and live there and since no one else is already there you need to be pretty self-sufficient.
Needless to say one problem with this approach from the outset is it only made sense in a subsistence farmer culture, where most folks would support themselves on the land. The assumption presumably being the fraction of folks who don’t farm would move to a place with many new farmers to serve as their local blacksmith, lawyer, doctor, or retail shop. Or take a claim, doing the bare minimum to it, then rent or sell the excess land to others down the road. We could see this in space too, indeed a post-biological civilization might use the surface area of a solar system around its sun as the source of power to run their processors, but it would be more likely to come with a more three dimensional approach and that raises that whole scale issue again. Grabbing up acres or hectares of a classic planet like Mars, or places like the Moon or Ceres, translates well enough, and technology will let us carefully survey spots in advance in ways pioneers didn’t get to when making claims. This
doesn’t work as well for asteroids and we’ll come back to that, but for planets and bigger rocks it would make a lot of sense for nations to negotiate – or coerce – each other into having an agreed on region of that rock – possibly in its entirety but probably chunks of it – which they could then parcel out as they saw fit and treaty permitted. But those rocks really are not that valuable, the real attraction to going and colonizing Mars is that in a few millennia, you’ve got a colonized and possibly terraformed planet. If you want that to happen then you need to incentivize people going there, and the harder the effort is, the harder it is to get folks to engage in it. You have to promise a bright new future to them – you can lie through your teeth to them but to get their butts on the boats, as it were, you either need them to come voluntarily or force them, something we looked at more in our Space Prison Colonies Episode.
There are also many methods folks can use to legally abuse the various homestead acts, to screw their neighbors or Uncle Sam, so I’m betting any future-space form of them will involve a lot more incentives then 160 acres of dead planet and a lot more registration and legal forms than in the past. An alternative of course is a more feudal approach, where the entity with the sovereign claim sells, rents, or grants big parcels to a person or group that is expected to build the community, and I suspect we would see that a lot more with artificial space habitats like O’Neill Cylinders. Anyway, odds are good the incentives for a place like Mars are going to need to include the cost of passage, and probably a lot of initial resources and goods too, what with it being a big dead rock.
These would likely be the target for thieves more than the land itself. A hacker or conman might – and probably would – figure out ways to steal claims or forge fake applications. Indeed I’d bet forging a fake claim then selling bits of it to others might be a common headache especially as its hard to deal with stolen goods bought in good faith – or good-ish faith anyway – especially when your goal was to get someone to develop the place and that’s now happening, even though a big chunk of it was fueled by some fraudulent effort a generation back that just got uncovered.
How big a stake would you get? Well it fundamentally depends on what it takes to get folks there and we might be talking about huge tracts of land on Mars, or even entire planets in other solar systems. Technology might make such incentives easy to offer though. A post-scarcity civilization with good self-replicating robots might actually be able to give a colonist a spaceship of their own with a cargo hold full of goods and consider it a trifle, and thus not need to offer some huge claim of land. Alternatively, they might be able to send that person with a small suitcase of personal goods on a packed ship, simply because space and mass was at a premium and all they needed was the self-assembling self-replicating colonizer they had in their pocket that needed thrown in a sunny place near rock and will do the work from there. Of course, they might not need to incentivize it or deal with the riff-raff cultural rejects willing to hop on ship for the new world because home offers them little, because they might just clone or copy their ideal citizens with ideal ideologically loyalty. We also have some stake options that aren’t land or are only indirectly so – mineral rights for asteroids is one bigger example, but a planet might grant certain unique resources. There’s an example of that in the Constitutional Monarchy and Aristocracy of Manticore from David Weber’s Honor Harrington series, where folks who get knighted or added to the peerage might get a chunk of Crown Land but also might get something like piece of radio spectrum, every TV or radio channel or cell tower using that band of frequencies for broadcast has to pay you rent on them. Something similar might apply to orbital space, especially that small ring
around a planet that is the geostationary orbit that always hangs directly over the same spot. So you might get the Baron of FM Radio 101 to 110, or the Duke of Geostationary. That series has many interesting examples of how colonization might go down, but in the case of Manticore they basically colonized the place with three classes of folks. The people who could pay to help fund the expedition, the people who could roughly pay their own way, and the folks who needed subsidy to get there, and it plays in nicely to another popular scifi setting trope we see a lot besides Wild West, which is that neo-Feudal aristocracy and knights and samurais flavor. As a minor side note, it's probably not a coincidence that the US, UK, and Japan have been the biggest source of scifi novels and films and shows in the 20th century and that we often see bits of their past adapted to future space opera, and as we see a lot more scifi geek culture emerging in others places in the last generation or so, it has resulted in a lot broadening of the prior worldbuilding cliches in science fiction, and fantasy for that matter too. We’re mostly focused on those cliches for today though. And that nobility and vassalage thing is also one of those scifi cliches whose historical basis is pretty broad, so it does strike me as one of the more common options along with homesteading for future space colonization. Different flavor, it may or may not be hereditary and I really
can’t imagine it will involve the regional baron dressing up in a suit of armor – or giant mecha, cool as that sounds – to go battle the invading hordes. They’re more likely to dress up in a business suit, or their culturally significant astronaut mining suit in the style worn by their ancient founders. Your barons might be AI, cyborgs, or transhumans too. Coming back to the cloning and copying option, if you could do that, and you could get on a ship and spend ten thousand years on ice to emerge at an empty solar system far away from here, around one of the billions of stars in our corner of the galaxy, we might see people do that. I don’t know how much it costs to buy a solar system, you can’t actually buy stars right now, or even their names.
The International Astronomical Union doesn’t sell them, they don’t even bother naming them anymore, just numbering them, and it's not like they have any legal power backed by treaty or something. Those ‘name a star’ groups might be selling so much fluff but I hear folks say ‘only the IAU can name stars’ and that’s nonsense too, the IAU is the biggest and most influential entirely voluntary group of astronomers out there but it’s got zero legal authority. But it does have de facto authority – something which really does matter in emerging colonial space environments I expect – for the same reason any non-governmental group does – popularity and inertia. Consider, to sell a planet ten thousand light
years away, you either have to be able to make it easier for someone to get themselves to it, or make them afraid of trying to take it without your okay. Now that might really be doable, someone might say they’ve got automated fleets of enforcers who show up and sterilize worlds without suitable claim documentation – but while a colony getting wiped out by a robot armada for failing to give the proper CD-Key – Colonial Development – might make for good fiction, I don’t think we want automated extermination fleets wandering the galaxy… though that’s one way it might happen. And might be okay with folks too. If our society gets good enough with automation that anyone could afford to buy a spaceship with a freezer, a loyal AI, and a 3D printer, then it's also one where black or gray markets might provide templates for cloneable or copyable slaves. Go hop on your spaceship, fly on ice far away, even to some isolated star ejected from our galaxy, and let the computer set you up as the immortal ruler of some world it’s populated with people for you, all brainwashed or chipped to behave properly. And unlike the virtual world version of this, it's not likely the egomaniacal god-king of the personal paradise is employing simulated humans with no sentience like a big and elaborate video game. In a simulated reality, using less processor
power for simulating nameless people you’ll rarely encounter means cheaper worlds or bigger ones, in colonizing in the flesh, it does not. In such a case, you might have a big push for controlling who settles what, and making sure they follow certain rules. Of course, concerns covering that might actually have the opposite of the intended effect, since they could serve as a means for an authoritarian tyrant or group to convince people they should be the only ones who have those powers. At a local level too, that’s a pretty decent reason for setting up a feudal state, it is not too hard to imagine a collection of asteroids or the rocks orbiting as the ring of a gas giant might fear predators and end up swearing allegiance to one of the tougher and more likable ones for protection, offering a cut of their production as payment. Many a pirate or brigand has ended up with their great-grandkids as the honored and respected nobles of some land under this model. So I’m not even sure that is an extreme or weird case, but we need to contemplate what we’d actually do if we came across civilizations like that. It is very likely expansion of our civilization will fall into a slower wave than
actual colonization of the galaxy. This is part of what we mean when we quip on the show that if there are no aliens, we only need to wait a few thousands years and there will be. If technology does evolve to allow many small groups or individuals to grab a speedy spaceship and head off to parts unknown, then given that civilization itself is likely to head out slower, we would probably find ourselves constantly bumping into our rogue colonies founded a few centuries or millennia earlier. And that's a bit ethically problematic since we’re now talking about running into human civilizations that are effectively indigenous.
Only this isn’t Star Trek, there’s no Prime Directive, and there’s a big moral difference between not screwing with the world you’ve encountered that was founded centuries earlier and has some views or traditions you find alien versus coming across some place whose ruler is a Multiplicity Mind of ten-thousand linked clones of themselves so that they can enjoy dominating, enslaving, and violating their captive population, with their ten-thousand avatars. They also might have been using that population – or automated robots- to build one heck of a defensive bastion out of that solar system and so you might be needing to sacrifice a lot more than your principles of non-interference to deal with that monstrosity of a lost colony. It’s a bit of a reminder that the Wild Wests of the future might be full of a lot of scoundrels and might better resemble West World than Little House on the Prairie without some serious intervention and policing – which comes with its own risks. In the absence of that, you’ve got to be able to hold on to what you’ve got. There’s a reason why there’s a gun culture in the US we don’t see as much elsewhere, and a lot of that is the fear the homesteader has that the nearest friendly sheriff might be days away, might not be very friendly, and you got to protect yourself, and that mindset is a fairly natural one for someone willing to go off to a distant land and fend for themselves too.
Often including a dislike for authority, from legitimate ro paranoid reasons. That’s not the only way colonization can go down, but it is one I’d rate as highly likely to be common and we have to keep in mind, we’re not talking about a gunpowder rifle or six-shooter when we’re talking space colonization. We’re probably talking privately owned nukes or worse. Consider – and also to segue into asteroid colonization – any ship or mass driver that can send resources back home can send explosives too, because the simple power behind such a device turns a ten tall ball of steel for building with into ten tons of hypersonic cannon slug that could wreck most towns, even without any payload of conventional or atomic explosives in it. You may have claimed a kilometer-wide asteroid in the belt to mine. This is plausible enough, there’s around a million of them, but now you need to refine your metals or ship them home, and power all your production and life support and so on. You’re probably doing this with a megawatt power supply or better. You probably got a 3D printer that can produce a lot of parts
and you’re probably pretty technically skilled. You also know that if someone’s coming in to take your asteroid claim, they probably are doing it with a ship that can shoot those 10-ten hypersonic slugs at you, and probably follow it up with boarding pods full of killer death bots. And if you’re looking to attract workers, investors, family, or friends to come join you on your rock, your attractive amenities probably need to include a robust defense system.
You probably need this even if this is all taking place inside a civilized and enlightened culture, because the law is an hour away by message and maybe months away by gunship and marine expeditionary force. Pirate stake jumpers might have more sophisticated options than big guns too, like brain washing and rewiring to make you cheerfully sign over your claim to them and tell the marines or sheriff arriving months later that all is indeed well. Asteroids move constantly, some have families they stick loosely with but by and large they aren’t even in the same relative place with their neighbors from year to year, so your asteroid isn’t in the British Octant of the Asteroid Belt near the French Octant, where some commercial raiding might occur. Your asteroid is constantly changing neighbors, and ones who might have allies or corrupt officials who can show them your resource report and quietly delete or change the tiny little file designating and mapping your rock to swap it with another that wasn’t owned or a barren one they already owned. Then their thugs come in, cut your throats, throw you in the recycler, and nobody even knows. Especially in interstellar colonization contexts,
trying to find out something like that happened will not only be hard, but getting justice for it a thousand years later when all the perpetrators might be long dead is tricky at best. And mind you, this all assumes a state of play parallel to modern times, which are the best recorded and administered we’ve ever had with the longest arm of the law. There’s a quote from Sherlock Holmes that always impressed me with how things shift with time, having read it in the 1990s as a rural kid when urban areas were synonymous with high crime rates. He and Watson are out in the country in the tale “the Adventure of the Copper Beeches” and Watson is delighting in the rural beauty and homesteads but Holmes dislikes it, he says: “They always fill me with a certain horror. It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside. But the reason is very obvious. The pressure of public opinion can do in the town what the law cannot accomplish.
There is no lane so vile that the scream of a tortured child, or the thud of a drunkard’s blow, does not beget sympathy and indignation among the neighbours, and then the whole machinery of justice is ever so close that a word of complaint can set it going, and there is but a step between the crime and the dock. But look at these lonely houses, each in its own fields, filled for the most part with poor ignorant folk who know little of the law. Think of the deeds of hellish cruelty, the hidden wickedness which may go on, year in, year out, in such places, and none the wiser.”
That’s a thing we need to contemplate for the future and whichever asteroid miner or potential interstellar colonist will be thinking about, before they head out there and certainly when they settle in. There is not much stopping one determined and wicked person from wreaking horrors upon their peers a trillion kilometers from the nearest police station. I think we can maintain the rule of law and order in the inner system and around the bigger planets, even while settling them, and around those first few prestigious colonies of Alpha Centauri or Epsilon Eridani. However, it would be hard to do and probably won’t hold out in the Oort belt or in distant colony worlds. Remember that space is 3D, there may be around ten thousand solar systems within a light century of us, ten times further away, there’s 10-cubed or a thousand times more, ten million solar systems await us in that space, not a million kilometer wide asteroids like in our Belt. And ten billion within 10,000 light years of us, one for every person living
right now. And critically, probably about one for every person living when the first interstellar colony ship is built. It’s always hard to guess how populations might rise, but I would think that by the time humans number a hundred billion people, we will have claims on every rock out to the Kuiper Belt bigger than a kilometer across and we will have a few dozen well-funded interstellar colony ships headed to or arrived at new stars. But what then?
Now that the technology and issues are well solved and available for any to use. Now that we have the sort of industrial might we picture us having in a few centuries. Anybody can run out to the stars and claim something. Will we blow up a ship headed to one? Would we even
see them divert from an authorized trajectory, a couple light years out, to a new and unauthorized one? Who's doing the authorizing? And for that matter, who's protecting unauthorized colonies, which might be people with good and honest folks a few generations later, from piratic neighbors, who may themselves be descended from once honourable and law-abiding ones? Sound like a good pitch for a Glorious Space Empire, but it’s the sorts of worries real people will be having when we’re trying to convince them to get on the ship to travel to dead worlds and bring them to life, that they may not even make it there or that they might get buried on that world after succumbing to human predators, not the challenges of terraforming. Now to return to asteroids for a moment, and this applies to solar systems too, there is that higher-dimensional aspect to claims, like if you’re buying a wedge shaped chunk of asteroid rather than a spot of surface area. But also in the location in space AND time sense, that fourth dimension, because buying a distant Kuiper Belt Object and bringing it into the inner solar system might be an attractive option, you can smelt the thing en route into a big wad of solar collectors close to Sun, turning your cheap 1-kilometer wide metallic asteroid into a half dozen big O’Neill Cylinders, each able to house a million folks, surrounded by a cloud of solar collectors a millimeter thick and bigger than Texas, sucking in more power than the entire human civilization produces right now.
That is likely to be a big objective of a lot of asteroid developers and of course you presumably not only need ownership of that chunk of ‘Land’ but also the right to move it. Like owning some boring little chunk of Idaho you bought for a few hundred bucks then picked up and plopped next to NYC or London. So odds are ownership of asteroids is likely to have some limitations – like it gets voided or modified if it leaves a certain orbital path. Also there’s a good chance ownership in an eternal sense won’t even be offered, and it would be things like one-century leases or lease for certain uses, mineral extraction or building it into space habitats.
Speaking of higher dimensions, let’s close out by contemplating other types of space we might claim. Beyond new planets and asteroids or even the galaxy, it is quite possible that even without faster than light travel, fast hyperspace jump ships or warp drives, that we might see folks staking claims to whole galaxies. M87 is a massive galaxy of over a trillion stars 50 million light years from here, a prize if uninhabited, but a ship headed there, even at 90% of light speed, will still take 55 million years to arrive. Indeed a bit longer from Hubble Expansion during the trip. A ship moving 91% light speed instead would arrive more than half a million years sooner, and in doing so would have the time to colonize every single one of those trillion stars and raise them up to Kardashev-2 Dysons Swarms. Ones that could crush any lone colony ship arriving late to the
game. So an authorized vessel making that voyage with top technology of their day might get passed en route by some rogue and cheap ship built a thousand years later for a hundredth the price. It raises the question of who is presuming to authorize intergalactic colonies, but how about those offering to let you colonize the multiverse? And as we looked at in our episodes on Multiverses, if they exist and can be traveled to, a near infinite number of worlds just like Earth only without humans, Earth 1 Million BC for instance, then the technology to reach them might be developed before an interstellar colony ship even reached Alpha Centauri. How do
you manage claims on a trillion-trillion-trillion Near-Earth copies folks can step to through a simple portal and do you even need to? And for that matter, what about black holes and baby universes, or staking claims on Universes someone made in their lab, or that they made on a computer but which is now home to thousands of people, some of whom are there by virtual headset, and some of whom were born there as digital people? Did creating a colony, or even a whole Universe, grant you authority over it and if so, to what degree and for how long? One thing seems sure, the future is not likely to be short of the need for lawyers, in colonizing regular space or weirder space. Thankfully the one other thing space isn’t short of, is space, space for a trillion worlds and more, and maybe in spite of human history, we’ll play nice with each other and share when we get out there. Before anyone can stake or jump claims in space we are going to need to survey and prospect those asteroid and there’s a lot of great videos on our early efforts to do that over on Curiosuity Stream, including Hayabusa 2, a look at the Japanese robotic probe that gave us direct subsurface samples of an asteroid. Now a keystone of today’s topic is that claim staking of mines and resources is likely to be a strong motivator for space settlement, and I thought we would take a few minutes to discuss the general notion of asteroid mines being full of wealth and crashing commodity markets back here on Earth. So we’ll be doing that topic in an Extended Edition of today’s episode over on Nebula, and as usual those extended editions replace our normal sponsor reads and ads with typically about 5-10 minutes of additional content, and those are essentially sponsored by Curiositystream. Nebula, our streaming service, is a way for content creators to enjoy additional creative freedom and let’s folks sponsor our show there in exchange for getting those episode a couple days earlier, ad and sponsor free, and with those extended editions, and I wanted to thank everyone who's been helping support that as we’ve upgraded it and brought on tons of new features and creators.
Now you can subscribe to Nebula all by itself but we have also partnered up with CuriosityStream, the home of thousands of great educational videos, to offer Nebula for free as a bonus if you sign up for CuriosityStream using the link in our episode description. That lets you see content like Hayabusa 2: Asteroid Explosion, which is just one of the many amazing videos on Curiositystream, and all the great content over on Nebula from myself and many others. And you can get all that for less than $15 by using the link in the episode’s description. Incidentally before we get to our schedule and finish out Scifi Sunday, I wanted to give a shout out to “The Teeming Universe: An Extraterrestrial Field Guide” written and illustrated by Chrisitan Cline, which features a bunch of hypothetical alien races and a discussion of each along with wonderful pictures and anatomical diagrams. Definitely a fun read full of good inspiration for alien biology.
All right, that will wrap us up for another Scifi Sunday here on SFIA, and we’ll be back for another next month where we will explore the concept of Telepathy. So we’re winding our way towards new years and only have 3 more Thursday’s to go, starting this Thursday with a discussion of Vertical Farming, the technology that may let us nourish many billions of people while keeping our planet pristine. Then we’ll take a look at Escaping the Galaxy the week after that, if we need to get away from someone who has blown up our planet, before closing out the month and the year with a look at the Challenges we will be facing in the next 100 years. Then we will explode into 2022 with a look at using Nuclear Bombs to propel Spaceships. After that we will revisit our most popular series, Alien Civilizations & Civilizations at the End of Time, first for a look at hibernating alien civilizations that might be waiting till nearly the end of time, then for a look at the Big Rip, the cosmological model that ends the universe early and by being shredded, and we will ask how civilizations might manage that, or manage to survive that. Now if you want to make sure you get notified when those episodes come out, make sure subscribe to the channel, and if you enjoyed the episode, don’t forget to hit the like button and share it with others. If you’d like to help support future episodes, you can donate to
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