Who Owns the Celestial Resources ?

Can we avoid international conflict in time while resolving the “law lag” of mining celestial resources? Ambiguous laws, created decades ago, could prevent us from taking full advantage of space resources through projects like asteroid mining and water generation for potential colonies.

How Far Do Earth’s Treaties Extend Into the Universe?

In 1967, the US, the UK, and what was then the Soviet Union signed the Outer Space Treaty (OST), the only law governing the activities of humankind in outer space. The OST turns 50 in October 2017, and today the pact continues to forbid 107 party nations, as well as 23 signatories who have yet to ratify it, from colonizing or using celestial bodies for military operations. This law’s importance is growing once more, as the prospects of space colonization and asteroid mining inch closer every day. The need for asteroid mining in particular has become obvious, prompting a need to revisit the pact.

Some parties to the OST say that extracting any resources from asteroids violates the treaty and the spirit of the law involving celestial resources. Although the OST does not explicit mention mining, a ban on “national appropriation” of celestial bodies is among its key provisions, which arguably applies to resource extraction. This is the position of opponents to asteroid mining, including Belgium, Brazil, and Russia. Its proponents, including the US and Luxembourg, argue that the ban should be interpreted similarly to the “global commons” status of the world’s oceans, which allows any nation to fish, and no nations to colonize or unfairly exploit the oceans.

“The human race is close to asteroid mining in terms of technologies.”

University of Nebraska–Lincoln space law professor Frans von der Dunk told Scientific American that the pact “doesn’t provide you with much guidance” on the matter. Journal of Space Law editor-in-chief emerita Joanne Gabrynowicz cites the global commons counterexample of Antarctica, where treaties detailed explicit guidelines for permissible extraction.
Both von der Dunk and Gabrynowicz point out that there will be a need for more guidance before any specific countries move forward with their plans for space mining. An “international licensing body and some international sharing of benefits” could be necessary, in von der Dunk’s words.

In reality, and just as you’d expect given the typical “law lag,” it is possible that until companies actually begin mining, or at least put boots wherever they’re going so that the mining is imminent, no discussion or real progress toward any international framework will be made. For example: despite fresh interest in colonizing and mining the moon, the ill-fated Moon Agreement remains un-ratified by every country that would actually be affected. The agreement attempted to set forth rules for resource use, and was rejected specifically because of the issue of resource and benefit sharing.

Still, the human race is close to asteroid mining in terms of technologies. Costs of space travel are dropping thanks in large part to the private space industry, and new scientific discoveries bring solutions to practical challenges nearer to reality every day. Now is certainly the time for nations to begin discussing the problem. “Exploration has not always been a positive thing in the past,” said Lindy Elkins-Tanton, NASA principal investigator for the upcoming mission to the asteroid Psyche, to Scientific American. “We’ve got this opportunity right now to do better.”


This story was written by Karla Lant in Contently. Materials may be edited for content and length.

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