Space Law: Is Asteroid Mining Legal?

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Can a private company claim ownership of an asteroid based on sending a probe out to it? Can it at least get exclusive mining rights? Would it own the gold, platinum or other materials mined from the asteroid?

Last week, a new private company, Planetary Resources announced an ambitious plan to prospect for and eventually mine near-Earth asteroids. Backed in part by Google execs Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, this venture has stirred the pot once again on the question of outer space property rights.

Understanding the legality of asteroid mining starts with the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. Some might argue the treaty bans all space property rights, citing Article II:

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.

Berin Szoka

Others have argued that because Article II only applies to nations, individuals are free to claim chunks of the solar system. But as we’ve noted before, the treaty also requires nations to ensure their citizens comply with the other provisions of the Outer Space Treaty — including a prohibition against sovereign claims of property rights. So neither nations nor individuals can appropriate territory in space. But what about asteroid mining?

While Article II clearly bans “appropriation,” other provisions actually support property rights. The treaty makes clear that both the exploration and use of outer space shall be free of restraint and discrimination, and that there will be free access to all parts of space. It also states that the use of equipment and facilities necessary for peaceful activities is fine. And anything launched into (or built in) space remains the private property of its owner.

James Dunstan

To make sense of the Treaty, we must turn to customary international law — how nations have interpreted what these treaty provisions mean in their dealings, both internally, and with other nations. These other sources of international law are critical because the Outer Space Treaty itself is at best confusing and, at worst, internally inconsistent on space property rights.

Blanket claims to celestial bodies have been attempted for millennia, yet none has been recognized by customary law. The only court case we have in this respect arose when Greg Nemitz, a space activist, filed a claim for the asteroid Eros with an online database known as the Archimedes Institute, and then sent NASA a bill for parking fees when NASA landed the NEAR-Shoemaker probe on Eros in 2001. The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the suit because Nemitz was unable to prove actual ownership rights for Eros.

While Nemitz failed, customary international law has essentially recognized property rights based on possession — which, as the old saying goes, is nine-tenths of the law. Satellite orbits, for instance, are allocated by the International Telecommunications Union. Strictly speaking, they are not “owned” by the assignee, but can be renewed on a regular basis, and can be leased to other parties. This and Outer Space Treaty’s recognition of property rights for satellites are the basis for the more than $300-billion-per-year private satellite industry.

Similarly, asteroid mining will depend on customary international law established by the 1960s moon race between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. The six Apollo landings brought back 842 pounds of lunar material. NASA has strictly controlled use of the material, and less than 10 percent has ever been experimented on.

NASA itself claims (.pdf) that the lunar samples are “a limited national resource, a future heritage, and [requires] that samples be released only for approved applications in research, education, and public display.” The United States government has vigorously prosecuted anyone thought to have improperly obtained any such samples. Yet NASA exchanged some of these samples with the Soviet Union, which drew from the approximately 300 grams of lunar material brought back by three Soviet Luna robotic sample return missions.

Under any definition of ownership, the United States clearly owns the Apollo lunar samples. Any entity that can claim something as an exclusive resource, control its transport and distribution, and can exchange it for something else of value (in this case, other lunar samples), clearly owns that object. Russian lunar samples have been re-sold by private individuals, establishing that portions of a celestial body can be subject to ownership if they are removed from that celestial body — whether by governments or private parties — even if the celestial bodies themselves are not subject to appropriation.

This is the single most important legal precedent property rights in space, and should provide great comfort to those who wish to exploit the resources of outer space. It is also consistent with many commentators, who allege that the Outer Space Treaty’s prohibition on “appropriation” relates only to entire celestial bodies as they exist “in nature,” and that both individuals and nations can claim ownership of resources extracted from celestial bodies. The only real question, then, is the extent of this ownership: Can an entire asteroid be claimed if it is being mined?

Under the Outer Space Treaty, if a company is mining an asteroid, no other entity could come along and start mining on the other side if doing so could interfere with the first set of miners. If the asteroid were large enough to accommodate two independent mining operations, both could likely proceed, each gaining ownership of whatever material they extract. Thus, customary international law already gives would-be asteroid miners a sound basis for their business model.

But what if a mining company captured an asteroid, changing its orbit to bring it closer to Earth and thus make return of extracted materials easier? Would the entire asteroid belong to the mining company because the asteroid, as a whole, was “extracted” from its “natural” orbit — becoming more like a single rock or an artificial satellite than a moon or a planet?

This question is too far in the future to answer. But the day that question arrives, we can all pop the champagne corks to celebrate: Mankind will have become a truly spacefaring species. We will have taken the first steps toward bringing the nearly limitless resources of space into the economic sphere of humanity.

Image: NASA/Wired

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May 2012
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