New U.S. space mining law may violate international treaty

Cover Image: Bryan Versteeg / Spacehabs.com

​Last week, the U.S. President, Barack Obama, enacted a landmark space mining law - the U.S. Space Act.

And at least one US company, in particular, is really happy about it...

US space mining law could open the door for asteroid mining

Founded in 2010 with the express purpose of mining asteroids, Planetary Resources aims to "expand Earth's natural resource base". In other words, they want to extract water, minerals and other valuable materials from asteroids and sell them.

Asteroid mining has long been a staple of science fiction, but the newly passed U.S. Commercial Space Launch ​Competitiveness Act, or the U.S. Space Act, is special because it eliminates any property rights issues private U.S. companies might face.

Basically, the space mining law protects the ownership rights of the materials extracted from asteroids, moon, and other celestial bodies. But the law does not allow for ownership of those bodies themselves.

It's an important distinction.

The language supposedly offers legal clarity over any conflicting language with the treaty that currently governs the ownership of asteroids, moons, planets, and other celestial bodies. -- the Outer Space Treaty of 1967.

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Planetary Resources, and their investors, were particularly concerned about that treaty​, which states, among other things: "states shall avoid harmful contamination of space and celestial bodies." To resolve those concerns, they lobbied Congress to offer some legal clarity on U.S space mining law.

The result? The U.S. Space Act.

As Chris Lewicki, president and chief engineer of Planetary Resources, explained:​

There are many investors who had questions about this issue. Now, with this milestone behind us, we can continue those conversations with the support of United States law. That, again, is a very solid framework on which to talk about what we can do next to continue to grow the industry and the opportunity.​

The legislation appears to be a great victory for U.S companies looking to extend their reach into space. And both Planetary Resources, and the politicians sponsoring their cause, were quick to say so. As Eric Anderson, a co-founder of the company, said in a press release:​

​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.

​There's just one little problem...

Some lawyers aren't certain the space mining law will stand up to scrutiny.​

The 1967 treaty reads​: "Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means."

The agreement also specifies that harvesting of space-based resources must be done "for the benefit and in the interests of all countries."

​Ram Jakhu, a professor at McGill University's institute of air and space law, told the Canadian Broadcast Company he thinks the new law is direct violation of the treaty.

My view is that natural resources [in space] should not be allowed to be appropriated by anyone -- states, private companies, or international organizations.

​Other lawyers disagree, claiming both that asteroids don't qualify as "celestial bodies" and that mining isn't "appropriation."

But there are plenty of critics. Gbenga Oduntan, an international law expert at the University of Kent, wrote in an op-ed for The Conversation:

The idea that American companies can on the basis of domestic laws alone systematically exploit mineral resources in space, despite huge environmental risks, really amounts to the audacity of greed.

​Is this just legal wrangling? Or is it irrelevant?

The United States has been gearing up for space-based resource extraction for decades, and there may be little the international community can do to police such activities.

And this new US space mining law won't actually be tested until someone like Planetary Resources actually mines an asteroid.

What do you think? Will this new U.S. law guarantee resource property rights for U.S companies? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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