Far out laws: Your asteroid mining rights

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Space is the final frontier…for capitalism as well, apparently. A new Congressional law now creates the possibility of giving corporations the right to own pieces of it. How did the cosmos suddenly come up for grabs?

Space Act enables property rights

The only reason space isn’t (yet) the Wild West is due to the Outer Space Treaty, which was signed in 1967 to specifically prohibit countries from claiming ownership of celestial bodies (which is strange, given that the United States planted six different flags on the surface of the moon). The new Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (called the Space Act of 2015) passed by the United States Congress radically changes the game by sidestepping many of the provisions established in the Outer Space Treaty.

Specifically, the Space Act now allows companies to establish property rights on asteroids. Furthermore, any asteroid resources obtained in outer space belong to the company that mines or removes them—no other company can interfere with those rights. Although the law does not give the mining company ownership of the asteroid itself, its rights to the resources contained in the asteroid are enforceable in federal court. (Consider this before trying to mine an asteroid that someone else is already mining…you know, if you’re into that sort of thing.)

Enabling a new industrial space race

The whole point of the Space Act is to encourage private companies to engage in space exploration and spur industrial development of outer space resources with limited governmental interference. The hope is that private industry will find ways to make space travel less expensive and create new industrial opportunities more quickly than any government can.

Water is one of the key resources companies are looking to exploit, because, apparently, there is plenty of water available in space. The high cost of transporting water (and fuel) is one of the reasons manned space missions are so expensive. If companies can find ways to “harvest” the water, it will greatly benefit space travel.

Not completely airtight

The new law has generated some concerns. In particular, the Space Act lacks provisions to address many potential commercial issues. For example, what happens when two companies discover and claim the same stash of platinum? Does the first man (or machine) who digs “win” the rights? Or, will more specific regulations come into play, so we’re not creating a new (and potentially dangerous) gold rush?

The law specifically says the United States itself can’t claim sovereignty over an asteroid (to comply with the Outer Space Treaty), but doesn’t directly address the issue of ownership by private entities. The mining company may own the minerals, but how far that ownership extends, and when it begins, is still a gray area. What’s also unclear is how rights will work when other countries get into the mix (which is inevitable). When companies from different countries start digging on the same asteroid, which governmental entity will have the authority to handle the negotiations? Or any potential litigation?

There are also questions about the impact of the Space Act on the Outer Space Treaty provision prohibiting harmful contamination of outer space bodies. Mining has long been shown to be harmful to the environment, and to human (and animal) health. Could an unintended consequence of mining in outer space end up being not only contamination of asteroids and planets but of Earth as well?

These legitimate concerns about the industrialization of outer space have yet to be addressed. And we better get on it soon, because the new law has many companies looking through telescopes, seeing dollar signs in the night sky.

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