The age of asteroid mining is upon us and the U.S. seems to take a regulatory lead with President Obama just signing the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act.
The only problem is that this new regulatory framework might come in conflict with international space law and several international treaties. The bill is strong on other points. The United States reaffirmed the government’s commitment to the International Space Station for the following ten years period. At the same time, funding is envisioned for NASA to loosen dependance on the Russian spacecrafts ferrying American astronauts to the International Space Station. Space startups are getting a break meanwhile with regulations becoming more lax, while the most thorny issue remains that of asteroid mining.
The age of asteroid mining is upon us through the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act which enables the framework for establishing property over the resources mined from an asteroid. The celestial body may not be claimed by any company or country on Earth according to international law. However, the bill makes it easier to establish property rights over the resources mined from the celestial bodies.
This provision alone has the extreme potential to spark conflict. And space startups along with private spaceflight companies are drawn into the powderkeg. For instance, in order to reach the said asteroids or celestial bodies, Virgin Galactic or Spacex spacecraft are the shortcut through the Federal Aviation Administration regulations. While still accountable to the federal agency, these companies are now less regulated than the aviation industry. Planetary Resources, an asteroid mining company, could do well in a partnership forged under the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act.
The Space Act was passed into law on November 18th. This piece of legislation allows companies to both own and sell resources they mine from celestial bodies, including asteroids. How does the national bill fit in the wider international framework? For once, it crosses over the ideological battle regarding the ownership of the universe and the bodies out there. And it oversteps two of the basic principles pinning customary law or international space law altogether.
The first of the principles is that states (those who afford it, of course) have the right to scientific exploration of celestial bodies in the outer space. Second: unilateral exploitation of celestial body resources is not permitted. Check out the Moon Agreement of 1979 and the Outer Space Treaty of 1967.
While the provisions of the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act are blatant overrides of the two principles, there are also other aspects to be taken into consideration. For instance, with the U.S. setting the lead on such regulator frameworks, there is nothing stopping other states from eventually doing the same.
In the end, it boils down to a race of space resource mining and ‘he who dares wins’. With no state or company entitled to own a celestial body, but all entitled to own the resources of a celestial body, conflict is looming.
At the same time, polluting space and the most pristine environment erases hope of ever finding alien life.
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