By Bill Ostrove, Space Systems Analyst, Forecast International.
On November 25, President Barack Obama officially signed into law the Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship Act of 2015 (SPACE Act of 2015, or H.R. 2262). The act addresses a number of commercial space issues, including commercial launch regulations, remote sensing licenses, and bureaucratic structures. Importantly, the bill delays the implementation of new regulations on the commercial launch industry until 2025.[i]
But arguably the most exciting part of the bill is that it legalizes the ownership of resources mined in space.
The ownership of the moon and other celestial bodies is governed by the international Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which bans the establishment of bases or colonies on the moon or any other celestial body. It also stipulates that exploration of outer space should be carried out for the benefit of all nations and people, and that outer space should be free for exploration and use by all states. Furthermore, the treaty holds governments responsible for all national activities in outer space. All facilities in outer space are required to be open to other nations.[ii]
The 1967 treaty does not allow any nation or person to claim ownership over celestial bodies. As the new law only provides for ownership of resources mined from celestial bodies, proponents of the bill say this distinction means the law does not violate the international treaty.[iii]
Still, there is strong opposition to the law, particularly from other countries. In an article on the website Science Alert, University of Kent professor Gbenga Obuntan wrote: “The act represents a full-frontal attack on settled principles of space law which are based on two basic principles: the right of states to scientific exploration of outer space and its celestial bodies and the prevention of unilateral and unbridled commercial exploitation of outer-space resources. These principles are found in agreements including the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 and the Moon Agreement of 1979.”[iv]
Another article, on Canadian News website cbc.ca, expresses concerns that the law will create a Wild West atmosphere by “privatizing a realm meant to belong to all of humanity.”[v]
American companies, on the other hand, applaud the move. Planetary Resources issued a press release praising the SPACE Act of 2015 even before President Obama signed the bill into law. Planetary Resources was founded in 2010 with a goal of mining valuable resources on asteroids and bringing them back to Earth. The company equates the new bill to the Homestead Act of 1862 that drove settlement of the western portion of the U.S., adding that the “off-planet economy will forever change our lives for the better here on Earth.”[vi]
Despite worries over treaty violations and bold proclamations of changing our lives on Earth, the space mining industry is still a long way from regularly mining and selling resources. Even the founders of Planetary Resources, after acknowledging technical hurdles and the high costs of asteroid mining, have tempered their large ambitions. They now seek to mine water and establish deep space fuel depots that could be used to support future exploration missions. Even that may prove too ambitious, as some companies propose launching fuel from Earth to rendezvous with missions in space.[vii]