Asteroid Mining: The Emerging Cosmic Economy

Ian Maddox, JHU:

This February 2016, Luxembourg announced its plans to invest in asteroid mining with the help of Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources. The Grand Duchy hopes to mine near-Earth asteroids for valuable heavy metals (such as Platinum group metals), while also using extracted iron, tungsten, and nickel for in-orbit spacecraft manufacturing. Additionally, Earth orbit manufacturing sites hope to convert hydrogen and oxygen atoms into water for rocket propellant. These new industries could be a new source of wealth for Luxembourg. However, the long lasting consequences of space industry are more than just economic. When describing the prospect of asteroid mining, Hans Mark, Deputy Administrator of NASA from 1981-1984, stated “[The] human race will expand into the solar system, thereby demonstrating once again that, while our resources may be limited at any given time, the human imagination is not.” Mark, along with many other scientists, believes humanity is destined to expand into space, and with this expansion politics will need to take on new responsibilities.

Asteroid mining and space exploration have been under the political radar for decades. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 laid the foundations of space policy by granting free passage in the solar system, banning the use of nuclear weapons in space orbit, and denying state appropriation of celestial bodies. This last point raises many questions regarding the legality of asteroid mining. Can Luxembourg extract resources from the NEAs as long as they do not claim ownership? Or is asteroid mining a form of state appropriation in itself? The answers to these questions will determine whether Luxembourg can continue to create its space enterprises, or be stopped in its tracks.

Politicians are also questioning the legality of a recent act of Congress that seems to conflict with not only the Outer Space Treaty, but also Luxembourg’s announcement to seize resources from space. The 2015 US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act states that any US citizen “shall be entitled to any asteroid resource or space resource obtained.” In other words, American companies are allowed to collect resources from space. Although the treaty explicitly states that this does not imply US sovereignty over a celestial body (allowing the US to not officially break the Outer Space Treaty of 1967), there is legal gray area regarding a foreign country pulling resources from celestial bodies. Therefore, Luxembourg’s decision can result in establishing two opposing precedents: space resources are the “world’s heritage,” or that the US has legal claims to any and all resources pulled from space. The hopes are that the former precedent will prevail.

Nevertheless, this analysis is ignoring a major precedent of space policy: major powers tend to ignore international space laws. For example, the Bogota Declaration of 1976, attempting to give countries sovereignty of the portion of geosynchronous orbit overhead, was largely ignored by major space-faring nations, such as the United States and Russia. Additionally, the Moon Treaty of 1979, forbidding private ownership of extraterrestrial real estate, failed to be recognized and ratified by all of the major space-faring nations. The lack of international recognition for both of these treaties could indicate that nations with space capability do not wish to sign away their rights to seize extraterrestrial territory and resources. On the other hand, the ignorance for international space law could illustrate nothing more than a lack of urgency in addressing space affairs. The UN’s response Dennis Hope’s Lunar Embassy Commission illustrates the world’s indifference towards establishing concrete space laws. 30 years ago, Dr. Dennis Hope sent a letter to the UN that gave Hope official private ownership of the celestial body. The UN never responded, so the man began selling plots of land in the 1980s. He has now sold over 611 million acres of the moon’s surface and is in the process of being recognized by the IMF. Although this idea of a lunar real estate agent is humorous, its implications are not. As of now, the international community is failing to implement an effective system for space policy and allowing a single man to carve up an entire celestial body.

Expansion into space will raise new questions regarding private property, new industries, and national security. The international response to Luxembourg’s decision to become the pioneer of space industry will be critical in defining space policy in the years to come.

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