Screenshot from the video game Blackspace  - “a defensive action / strategy game that takes place in the not too distant future, when asteroid mining has become common [and you need to] defend yourself from incoming enemies who loot and destroy."

Screenshot from the video game Blackspace – “a defensive action / strategy game that takes place in the not too distant future, when asteroid mining has become common [and you need to] defend yourself from incoming enemies who loot and destroy.”

Officially, US citizens are now entitled to any resources they mine off the moon, asteroid or any celestial body outside Earth. This right has been passed by Congress, as part of the Commercial Space Launch Act of 2015 which sets a new framework for the fledgling, but rapidly expanding private space industry.

The act sets forth rules and regulations that improve safety in space, how licenses are granted to space companies, and – maybe most importantly –  what rights US entities have over any resources they mine in outer space.

Space law

In 1967, amidst fears of nuclear weapons being deployed in space, the Outer Space Treaty was signed by U.N. states which bans their use. Among other things, the act states:

“ART 1. Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall be free for exploration and use by all States without discrimination of any kind, on a basis of equality and in accordance with international law, and there shall be free access to all areas of celestial bodies.

There shall be freedom of scientific investigation in outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, and States shall facilitate and encourage international co-operation in such investigation.”

“ART 2. Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.”

“ART 3. States Parties to the Treaty shall carry on activities in the exploration and use of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, in accordance with international law, including the Charter of the United Nations, in the interest of maintaining international peace and security and promoting international co-operation and understanding.”

Meaning, no one can own the moon, Mars or an asteroid. Now, the main scope of the treaty was to avoid space colonization. If you can’t own the moon, you can’t build a space fort packed with nuclear weapons either. However, there’s no clear instruction on how to handle space resources. That’s because this is essentially a “peace treaty”. In the ’60s no one actually believed someone will mine resources.

What’s at stake

Today, however, there are quite a few who are interested in such ventures given there’s a potential multi-trillion industry awaiting and the private space sector is increasingly expanding. Some asteroids, by rough estimates, can contain more gold, platinum, cobalt, iridium, and many, many other precious or industrial metals than in the whole planet. One venture that’s seriously interested in asteroid mining is called Planetary Resources, and lists Google Chief Executive Larry Page, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, director James Cameron and entrepreneur Ross Perot Jr. as partners. Studies show that the moon has twenty times more titanium and platinum than anywhere on Earth, along with helium 3, a rare isotope of helium, which is nonexistent on our planet, that many feel could be the future of energy on Earth and in space.

Naveen Jain, co-founder and chairman of Moon Express, Inc., is one of the couple of billionaires today who share a common vision – the future of private space capitalization. Jain’s idea, in particular, is that of bringing lunar landers and mining platforms to the moon.

“People ask, why do we want to go back to the moon? Isn’t it just barren soil?” Jain said. “But the moon has never been explored from an entrepreneurial perspective.”

Besides trillions of dollars worth of precious metals and rare minerals, exploiting the moon and asteroids could set the stage for outer space outposts, crucial for refueling or scientific research; the kind that could really usher colonies on Mars, or Jupiter’s Europa. Of course, the technical requirements and challenges are immense. A vast, radiation-filled vacuum separates the space entrepreneurs from the space rocks of their ambitions, and any actual mining is many years away and might fail. John Gruener, a planetary scientist at NASA, doesn’t expect space prospecting to happen any time soon.

“I see the real utilization of resources in space probably a couple of decades away — at the most optimistic.”

But it matters little how far away space mining is realistically. The potential is real and huge to boast. It only seems like a matter of time, and naturally legislation should come before any attempt is made. No entrepreneur would funnel billions to mine an asteroid if the resources would later be confiscated under some bogus international law. Moreover, once the technology is in place, quarrels as to whom should have the right claim to these resources are bound to happen. With this in mind, it’s best to clarify space mining years before the necessary technology is introduced.

According to Joanne Gabrynowicz, a space lawyer and editor emeritus of the Journal of Space Law at the University of Mississippi School of Law, “Non-state actors … are authorized to be in space, that’s what Article 6 of the Outer Space Treaty is all about. But we’ve just never reached agreement on what happens to extracted resources. … So what is happening is you have companies that are chomping at the bit to clarify the rules.”

Art. 1 of the Outer Space Act states “Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall be free for exploration and use by all States without discrimination of any kind”. Things are already a tad ambiguous in practice, since NASA claimed ownership of 842 pounds of lunar rock collected during the Apollo missions. Nobody seemed to disagree, but then again commercial interest was lacking. Fifty years from now, that won’t be the case. Wars have been started for far less. The recently passed Commercial Space Launch Act states:

“A United States citizen engaged in commercial recovery of an asteroid resource or a space resource under this chapter shall be entitled to any asteroid resource or space resource obtained, including to possess, own, transport, use, and sell the asteroid resource or space resource obtained in accordance with applicable law, including the international obligations of the United States.”.

One international obligation is that the US can’t claim sovereignty over any celestial body, but in effect the law grants the same rights to a US citizen that it has over resources mined in US sovereign territory. And since this regulation has only been ratified by US Congress, and not under an international treaty, the whole things smells fishy.

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