The Commercial Space Launch Act of 2015, recently passed by both the House and Senate, is unique because the legislation covers a subject that is not directly related to space launches and was once the stuff of science fiction. An entire title of the bill covers the subject of mining resources from asteroids and other celestial bodies.  The crucial paragraph in the title concerning space resources states:

“A United States citizen engaged in commercial recovery of an asteroid resource or a space resource under this chapter shall be entitled to any asteroid resource or space resource obtained, including to possess, own, transport, use, and sell the asteroid resource or space resource obtained in accordance with applicable law, including the international obligations of the United States.”

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The language of the act is a clever way of getting around a provision of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which states, in 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.”

In general, property rights are secured by a state for its citizens by the exercise of national sovereignty. A mining operation in the United States owns the minerals it unearths because the government grants it the right of ownership by exercising its power of sovereignty.

The language of the act by implication acknowledges the provisions of the Outer Space Treaty. The United States is not going to claim the moon or an asteroid as its national territory. But it is granting the right of American citizens to own minerals that they extract from celestial bodies.

The principle that people or entities that extract minerals from another world own those minerals was established during the Apollo program. Neil Armstrong, in accordance with the Outer Space Treaty, did not claim the moon as American territory. But the moon rocks and soil samples that he and every other Apollo astronaut extracted during the six lunar landing missions belong to the United States, ownership which is recognized by the world community. The language of the bill simply extends that right from United States government astronauts to private companies such as Moon Express, which proposes to mine the moon, and Planetary Resources, which plans to mine asteroids.

The asteroid and space resources (the latter understood to be the moon) provisions of the act have been universally hailed by the commercial space community. The provisions place the United States squarely on the side of private property rights in space.

Asteroid and lunar mining could become a trillion-dollar industry later this century. Ice can be mined and used to sustain future space colonies and be refined into rocket fuel for deep space voyages. Platinum-group metals and rare earths will be crucial for high-tech industries, perhaps on Earth if transportation costs could be brought down sufficiently. Helium 3 from the moon could fuel clean, limitless fusion energy if and when that technology is developed.

Does that mean that the gold or rather platinum rush to the moon and beyond is on? Space mining may not happen for a few years because of high startup costs. But with private companies already gearing up and the Google Lunar X Prize contest in full swing, a new space race is starting to take shape, this time by private companies vying for riches rather than prestige and science.

Ironically, NASA, whose greatest glory was the original moon landings, is looking upon these developments with passivity. The space agency is fixed on the Road to Mars. Of course, all that could change, to the mutual benefit of both NASA and the commercial space sector. The moon could be added as a steppingstone for the Red Planet and a center of science and commerce that would enrich the Earth in ways that are now beyond evaluation.

Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has just published a political study of space exploration entitled Why is it so Hard to Go Back to the Moon? He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.