Can You Own Part of an Asteroid? How Asteroid Mining Is Changing Space Law

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Coal miners mine coal; diamond miners mine diamonds; gold miners mine gold; space miners (will) mine space—and anything in it that has precious metals or compounds that can be whisked into rocket fuel. But, just like the first three kinds of “resource extraction,” the celestial kind will face more than a few philosophical, financial, and regulatory complications.

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NASA snapped this close-up image of near-Earth asteroid Eros in 2000. (Credit: NASA/JHUAPL)

On November 24, President Obama signed the “US Commercial Space Law Competitiveness Act” into law. Among other things (like that the government should not pester SpaceX), it states that any US citizen who takes a chip off an old block of asteroid then owns that chip.

The law also applies to other celestial bodies blessed with “resources,” like the Moon and every other planet and lower-case moon because “resources” is a vague word. The US citizen—or, more likely, a group of citizens who are part of a company, like Planetary Resources, Inc., or Deep Space Industries—can then “possess, own, transport, use, [or] sell” the resource.

The leaders of the two asteroid-mining frontrunners, who hope to extract things like precious metals and water from space rocks, spoke excitedly of the development.

“This is the single greatest recognition of property rights in history,” said Eric Anderson, the co-founder and co-chairman of Planetary Resources, Inc., (although some would argue with that). “This legislation establishes the same supportive framework that created the great economies of history, and will encourage the sustained development of space.”

Rick Tumlinson, chair of Deep Space Industries, said, “In the future humanity will look back at this bill being passed as one of the hallmarks of the opening of space to the people. Even while surrounded by so much bad news, in the long view of history, it is this sort of positive action that changes civilization, and while much else will not be remembered, the time when we began to unlock the wealth of the solar system for the people of Earth will be seen as a turning point.”

And their joyousness makes sense: Without this law, they wouldn’t make money if they ventured to a space rock and mined its titanium. They wouldn’t own that metal, so they couldn’t sell it. Now they can. And that’s key if this new breed of space business is going to make it.

Both companies primarily plan to use their space resources to build more space stuff, like habitats for future astronauts, solar-power arrays, and rocket fuel. They hope to create a solar system in which they can sell the parts to make (or in the case of Deep Space Industries, ready-made) off-Earth hotels, orbital research stations, and deep-space rockets—from right in space. Some inside the industry speculate it’s a “trillion-dollar market.”

But whether that market will materialize—and whether it’s actually legal, even with this law—remains an open question. The market can’t materialize until the technological capability is there, but the capability doesn’t have its primary income stream without the market.

That’s part of why this new act is important to companies like Deep Space and Planetary Resources. Before, their ability to own concrete chunks of space was unclear, so an investor couldn’t be certain they would profit from selling resources. Now, at least if they believe the market will exist once the capability does, they can invest and not lie awake suffering legal anxiety.

But while this is a first step, it isn’t the end of the road.

The new US law is a first step, but exactly who can own what in space still isn't totally clear.

The new US law is a first step, but exactly who can own what in space still isn't totally clear.

The international Outer Space Treaty, made in 1967, prohibits any nation from claiming “sovereign territory” in space. And, when the president signed the bill, he clarified that a given asteroid can never be your asteroid—a piece of it can be your piece, if you remove that piece from the larger rock and if that piece counts as a “resource.”

In other words, you can’t own an asteroid: That would be illegal according to both the new and old laws—but you can own a valuable part of one, once it’s not part of the asteroid. It’s a little confusing (and perhaps outright contradictory). And the international community doesn’t necessarily see the law as fair: Right now, US citizens are the only people allowed to do the owning, while the previous agreement about space property ruled across the globe.

Further, it isn’t clear how the economics of all this will work out yet either. And if mining companies sell prefab orbital colonies to other companies, there’s no guarantee that wealth will trickle down to the non-executive citizens of Earth.

In the long run, though, mining in, building in, and living in space will change life on Earth (even if it doesn’t make the average person richer), because our society will be split between those on solid ground and those floating in a vacuum. Which is pretty cool.

And the way to accomplish that is likely through private industry—or at least industry-government collaboration—because for-profit companies move faster, take more risks, and don’t depend on allocations from federal agencies. If they can prove they can make money by doing X, they will probably get to do X.

The most-cited timeline estimate comes from Planetary Resources, who say they’re a decade away from truly chipping away at those blocks. Both major companies—and Moon Express, which plans to mine our holey satellite—will prospect before harvesting. And that will take a while.

While we wait for them to build resource-sniffing spacecraft, the US should take the lead in encouraging international discussion and consensus. Space doesn’t belong to anyone—and it shouldn’t. But maybe we can find a way for pieces of it to belong to all of us.

Image Credit: Planetary Resources; NASA/JHUAPL

Sarah Scoles

Sarah Scoles

Sarah Scoles is a science writer based in Berkeley, California, who is fascinated by the intersection of science, space, tech, and culture.
Sarah Scoles

Discussion — 8 Responses

  • Sine Arrow December 9, 2015 on 7:17 pm

    It is interesting that the usual response to resource use is to ask if you have claimed the real estate it came from. People objecting to this space mining law in other venues demand that real estate be the resource model that be used. This is in spite of the point that there is another model easily more applicable than real estate.

    That is the model of the commons of the sea. If I were to go 1,000 km west of Portland, and throw out a net for Salmon, no one would think I must be claiming that patch of the North Pacific for myself, or for the US. Even if there were a shoal out of which seaweed were growing, and I harvested that, no one could reasonably claim I was trying to claim the shoal, or that I would have to claim it before selling the weed I’d brought back to port. Even if that seaweed was some sort that, say, concentrated the seas’ dissolved Uranium in its seed pods, I could sell it under the laws of the US. What I could *not* do is prevent anyone else from doing the same.

    In fact, our imagined Uranium scrounging seaweed as a resource is far closer to what is done for water, other volatiles, and metals in the carbonaceous chondrite asteroids that make up 75% of all asteroids. The difference is only in the two different universal concentration mechanisms and the time over which concentration took place. In the North Pacific, the concentration mechanism is life, following its natural maximization of entropy, over tens of years to tens of decades. In Near Earth Asteroids, the concentration mechanism is gravity, once again exhibiting entropy maximization, over billions of years.

    Yet, there is a persistence among objectors in demanding a real estate model be used. In the Outer Space Treaty that was done because Nation States are all about hunks of dirt, real estate, which they so often fight over. Since the OST was aimed at preventing fighting by Nation States, it naturally forbade activation of claims of real estate by nations, or anyone who might ever act in their stead. I find in so many objectors to the space mining law that in discussions on this topic they start with a real estate model assumption, and are horrified that any other might be applied. Indeed, the most common response to the suggestion of a commons of the sea model is to go directly to a verbal assault on the legitimacy of any present ability to harvest this resource, just because that
    ability is not universal.

    In this is usually mixed a strong willingness to imagine enforcement being brought against the US as a whole, just because it allows a harvested resource to be sold here, or at a space station built under US sovereignty, and protected by that sovereignty. I leave the topic of any effectiveness of such broad enforcement to others. The interesting part is the debate over which model of resource acquisition will be used, and what happens when one group or another loses that debate.

    Since I do not believe such broad enforcement can be successfully implemented, I focus on smaller actions, whether sanctioned by a government, or not. For those who oppose the legitimacy of space mining, if they lose the debate, then they have 3 possible actions, acquiesce, openly oppose, or oppose by acceding to private actions they refuse to acknowledge. Acquiescence is what we can hope for, but is uninteresting after the huzzahs die down.

    Open resistance is improbable if the industry begins activity on the time scale that Planetary Resources and DSI presently anticipate. The resources are not there in the next 20 years, from nations likely to oppose the US leading the way into the Solar System. However, latecomers, decades behind the US, may yet have agreement by opposing governments that the US having first starter position is bad enough that “something must be done”.

    That something would require capital, and must have a fast return, and must require far less capital than expended by those who came before them. Probably, those conditions can be met by the time that harvested materials are being returned to EML-1 or other points high in the Earth/Moon gravity well, and manufactured into more prospecting and harvesting spacecraft, among other things. Markets are good at making wealth, but less good at controlling it.

    Buying prospecting spacecraft in a market of manufacturers in Space will allow almost any nation’s citizens to acquire what they need, including their own manufacturing/marketing sites. They would then announce they’ve sent their robot prospectors off to find high value prospects. Our problem may be that we find that their idea of a high value prospect is one of our returning robot spacecraft, loaded with already mined/concentrated materials. Their robots disable the com facilities of their target, and then take it back to their new manufacturing facility, claiming the resources as a legitimate return from wherever their transponder went to out among the asteroids. When our people ask for help finding our lost spacecraft they may even have data faked to “help” us with.

    Yes, robot spacecraft will be vulnerable to robot space pirates! Worse, even when the pattern is uncovered, the fact that no humans have been “spaced”, or even held captive, will make the cost/benefit ratio of US action questionable for all too many inside the US who don’t want the US in a leadership role in Space. Wealth attracts humans, of all sorts, …the good, and the bad. We must think ahead about how we will deal with bad actors, so that deterrent assets are in place when they show up, and we need to overcome less internal resistance.

    • genidma Sine Arrow December 11, 2015 on 1:23 am

      I just wasted 5 minutes.

      You used a lot of big words and said nothing. Nothing.

      • Keith Burwood McFarland genidma December 13, 2015 on 3:35 am

        Actually, he said quite a lot that was informative. It may have meant nothing to you, but the fact that you read it for five minutes and then got mad only speaks to your own inadequacies, not those of the comment’s author.

  • PHILLIP V BITTLE SR December 9, 2015 on 9:03 pm

    Opening up space for profit and plunder will guarantee wars forever.

    • Sine Arrow PHILLIP V BITTLE SR December 10, 2015 on 9:13 am

      Phillip wrote:

      “Opening up space for profit and plunder will guarantee wars forever.”

      Why??

      Opening up the seas to profit did not guarantee plunder. In fact, plunder of oceanic trade is an episodic activity that usually happens by now only when ports adjacent to choke points in water travel are not under the control of governments that can be pressured to keep plunder from being sold. The Mediterranean between 1530-1830 was a good example, before the final suppression of the Barbary pirates. However, once the Royal Navy no longer had an interest in protecting ports on the African coast to supply food for wartime naval activity against France (the invention of canning by Monsieur L’Appert 1800-1805 changed that) those were quickly suppressed by occupation of the African coastline.

      The appropriate question, I believe, is …”what equivalent actions are needed to nip such activity in the bud, in the upcoming networks of trade throughout the Solar System?”

    • genidma PHILLIP V BITTLE SR December 11, 2015 on 1:24 am

      Another example of a fixed/scarcity mindset.

      Phillip Bitter, for you, I recommend:

  • Singman28 December 9, 2015 on 9:46 pm

    Great article!!! Beautifully written!!

    • genidma Singman28 December 11, 2015 on 1:25 am

      I agree.

      So great to see these amazing mind-blowing developments thanks to SingularityHub!