Mining the Universe

In November 2015 President Barack Obama signed a very forward-looking law that legalizes commercial asteroid mining. But it has met with skepticism from some experts in international law, who say the right to harvest resources from a space rock is not the U.S.’s to give.

The Outer Space Treaty of 1967, for instance, says signatories should avoid “harmful contamination” of the Moon and other celestial bodies, which are “not subject to national appropriation.” But the treaty is silent on private property rights. The U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act specifically refers to “asteroid resource utilization.”

This excerpt is from the legislative summary: "Any asteroid resources obtained in outer space are the property of the entity that obtained them, which shall be entitled to all property rights to them, consistent with applicable federal law and existing international obligations."

Particularly happy with the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act are firms like Deep Space Industries (see clip below) and Planetary Resources, a 2010-founded firm seeking to extract water, important materials, and minerals from asteroids and profit from them.

Julian Ku, a professor of international law at Hofstra University, said the law’s focus on private rights avoids a collision with the 1967 Outer Space Treaty: “All it does is allow private US citizens to possess, own, transport, use, and sell extraterrestrial resources without violating US law. On the other hand, it is also true that other spacefaring countries could allow their citizens to do the same. Indeed, I think that as long as they are not “claiming sovereignty,” their government space agencies could probably also do so."

Dr. Gbenga Oduntan of University of Kent, an international commercial law expert, said that it can be assumed that the list of states with access to outer space will grow from the current dozen or so, and institute their own space mining programs. “That means that the pristine conditions of the cradle of nature from which our own Earth was born may become irrevocably altered forever - making it harder to trace how we came into being,” he wrote, warning that once celestial bodies are contaminated with earthly microbes, humans’ chances of discovering alien life could be ruined. Dr. Oduntan added that space mining could also potentially damage the environment surrounding Earth and eventually result in resource-centered conflict.

Without an explicit international treaty regulating commercial space resource exploitation, it will ultimately be a question of each country’s domestic regulations. Can the U.S. live with that result? If not, there is still time to pass another law. Asteroid mining company Planetary Resources, whose name is aspirational at this point, expects the fun to begin as soon as 2025.