Much of the new law concerns commercial launch companies such as SpaceX and United Launch Alliance, which are creating rockets operated by the private sector that promise to transport cargo and people to and from low Earth orbit. But it is Title IV of the Act, concerning space and asteroid mining, that has caused the most comment and, in some cases, controversy.
“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.”
According to the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 (3), of which the United States is a signatory, no country can claim sovereign authority over celestial bodies such as the moon or an asteroid. The act states that an American person or company can own material that is mined from an asteroid or the moon, be it platinum-group metals, ice, helium-3, or some other substance.
The law extends the principle, established during the Apollo moon landings and accepted for decades, that a country owns the geological samples it recovers from other worlds, such as the Apollo moon rocks.
Trillions of Dollars at Stake
Space mining companies such as Moon Express and Planetary Resources are, understandably, ecstatic. Eric Anderson, the co-founder, and co-chairman of Planetary Resources, hailed the passage of the law, stating:
This is the single greatest recognition of property rights in history. This legislation establishes the same supportive framework that created the great economies of history and will encourage the sustained development of space” (4).
Moon Express co-founder and Executive Chairman, Naveen Jain, added:
I am super-excited that President Obama has recognized the rights of Moon Express to harvest and own lunar resources that can be used for the benefit of humanity. The Moon is our sister planet that has an incredible amount of natural resources, including helium-3, that can provide clean and limitless fusion energy for the entire world” (5).
At stake are trillions of dollars’ worth of minerals (6) waiting to be exploited on the moon and from asteroids.
Lunar ice can support a future moon colony and can be refined into rocket fuel to spur deep space travel and exploration. The aforementioned helium-3 can be used to fuel future fusion reactor, ushering in a new era of clean, limitless energy. Platinum-group metals and rare earth materials that can be mined in space are increasingly crucial for high-tech products.
Concerns about New Law
Not everyone is excited about the space mining aspects of the newly passed law. A number of law professors in foreign countries have excoriated the space mining provisions as a violation of international law (7).
Ram Jakhu, a professor at Canada’s McGill University’s Institute of Air and Space Law, stated that the act violates the Outer Space Treaty. Gbenga Oduntan, Senior Lecturer in International Commercial Law, University of Kent, went further and cited not only the Outer Space Treaty but the Moon Treaty of 1979, which declares space resources as the “common heritage” of humankind, of which the United States is not a party, but Oduntan claims is “customary law” nevertheless.
Oduntan also makes a political and an environmental argument against space mining. He argues that space mining would cause damage to the environments of the asteroids and the moon. He also alleges that mining the moon and asteroid would cause conflict on Earth.
Paul Spudis, a lunar geologist who writes frequently about space policy, opines that the act is fine so far as it goes (8). But he suggests that the United States has taken on the burden of enforcing the rights it has just given its citizens, which means that it needs to get serious about expanding a government presence (NASA, most likely) to the moon and beyond.
On the other hand, Glenn Reynolds, a law professor and well-known social and political commentator, celebrated the space mining provisions of the newly passed law, stating, “Now, investors don’t have to worry about whether they’ll plow millions (or billions) into a space mining company only to be told later that they broke the law” (9).
References & Image Credits:
(1) Space Daily
(2) Gov Track
(3) Dept. of State
(4) Planetary Resources
(6) TSW: Asteroid Mining Trillion Dollar Business
(8) Spudis Lunar Resources
(9) USA Today
(10) Asteroid Mining Photos