Just to prove that what was once science fiction is rapidly becoming the subject of serious Space policy discussion, the Daily Beast reported that the topic of space piracy came up during a conference that took place in Colorado. The idea is that when asteroid and lunar mining operations start up, the trillions of dollars in platinum group metals, rare Earths, and helium 3 will be an irresistible target for space pirates. The ensuing discussion touched on who would be responsible for combating these futuristic buccaneers, that being the world’s military and intelligence services. The various navies of the world have been fighting pirates on the high seas from the time the original swashbucklers with eye patches and parrots on their shoulders first ravaged the seven seas.

However, it is far more likely that future space pirates are more likely to use computer networks to hijack shipments of valuable minerals from asteroids or the lunar surface than space ships rendezvousing and docking with company freighters. One reason is that space is pretty vast, and the realities of orbital mechanics make intercepting spacecraft in transit rather difficult. The other reason is that most of the functions of asteroid and lunar mining are likely to be automated, with only an occasional visit by humans to perform maintenance and enhancement.

A typical space mining operation would use robots to prospect for and then extract valuable minerals. They would be loaded onto a robotic spaceship to be taken to a customer, say a manufacturing facility or, in the case of helium 3, a fusion reactor.

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Some mining concepts envision collocating manufacturing facilities with the mine, creating finished products using 3D printers and other advanced technology, and then shipping those to the customer.

In that kind of situation, why bother to try to hijack the space-going ore freighter when you can just hack into its navigation system and divert it from afar? The future space-faring pirate is more likely to be someone at a computer terminal rather than someone in a ship firing warning shots with a laser cannon. The concept does not invoke romantic notions of Blackbeard, Anne Bonny, or the fictional Captain Jack Sparrow, but it would seem to be more likely all things considered.

Therefore, anti-piracy operations are less likely to be conducted by the United States Aerospace Force than by other people behind computer terminals, blocking hacking attempts and trying to wrest control of a robotic freighter if it happens to have been taken over. Traditional displays of force would consist of law enforcement raiding the hacking facility after intelligence organizations identify and locate them. Think the TV show “NCIS” rather than “Black Sails.”