Asteroid mining could be space’s new frontier: the problem is doing it legally

Feb 6, 2016

Photo credit: EuroStyle Graphics/Alamy

By Rob Davies

When Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong hoisted the Stars and Stripes on the moon, the act was purely symbolic. Two years earlier, mindful of Cold War animosity, the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST) had decreed that outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, “is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty”.

In other words no country, not even the US, could own the moon or any other part of space, regardless of how many flags they erected there. Half a century on, though, the OST could prove the biggest obstacle to one of the most exciting new frontiers of space exploration: asteroid mining.

The reason lawyers could soon be poring over that 48-year-old document is that space mining could become a reality within a couple of decades.

In what is being seen as a major breakthrough for this embryonic technology, the government of Luxembourg has thrown its financial muscle behind plans to extract resources from asteroids, some of which are rich in platinum and other valuable metals. It plans to team up with private companies to help speed the progress of the industry and draw up a regulatory framework for it.

One such firm, Deep Space Industries, wants to send small satellites, called Fireflies, into space from 2017 to prospect for minerals and ice. The satellites would hitch a ride on a rocket, and larger craft would then be used to harvest, transport and store raw materials.


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6 comments on “Asteroid mining could be space’s new frontier: the problem is doing it legally

  • it would have to be pretty lucrative: you need to harvest a fair amount of raw materials, which means larger cargoships, which mean larger cost in getting the things in space .. would they be sending a crew alongside, or just remote controlled or robotics?



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  • @OP – the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST) had decreed that outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, “is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty”.
    In other words no country, not even the US, could own the moon or any other part of space, regardless of how many flags they erected there. Half a century on, though, the OST could prove the biggest obstacle to one of the most exciting new frontiers of space exploration: asteroid mining.

    The reason lawyers could soon be poring over that 48-year-old document is that space mining could become a reality within a couple of decades.

    There probably should be some international regulatory agreements to permit developments, and ensure safe and long term environmental protection.
    We don’t need a Solar-System scale repetition of Earth’s present “space junk” problems, with mining waste and scrap equipment flying all over the place.

    @OP linl – However, considerable as these hurdles are, experts believe the legal component is the most pressing. Late last year, the US government made an attempt to update the law on space mining, producing a bill that allows companies to “possess, own, transport, use, and sell” extra-terrestrial resources without violating US law. The problem is that putting this into practice violates the OST.

    “The way a private company would enforce their right to mine is through a national court,” says space law expert Dr Chris Newman of the University of Sunderland. “In making a ruling, that court would exercise sovereign rights, contravening the OST. We will only know how this would play out if it is tested in court.”

    US lawyer Michael Listner, who founded thinktank Space Law and Policy Solutions, says the US law is incompatible with the OST and risks souring international relations: “China and Russia will want in. If you have conflicts of law, things start getting dicey and that could lead to legal and political conflict.”

    Newman believes that one reason why Luxembourg has included plans for drawing up a regulatory framework is to show the world that work is under way on untangling such legal knots. “This is something for investors to hang their hat on,” he says, “to give them confidence and say that there is a nascent legal framework.”

    The present tendency is for the US to try to give companies carte-blanche to “encourage developments”!
    History suggests this is a very bad way to start an new industrial revolution, as it encourages a smash and grab approach to resources, rather than responsible long term management of them.



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  • Anti-theist preacher
    Feb 7, 2016 at 5:19 am

    it would have to be pretty lucrative: you need to harvest a fair amount of raw materials,

    That does not follow if very high value materials were being harvested.

    which means larger cargoships, which mean larger cost in getting the things in space

    Sending large robotic craft from Earth would only be in the initial stages.
    Once space based technologies were established harvesting materials such as water ice for making fuel, and solar energy to power the manufacturing processes in space, bulk launches from Earth would not be required.
    http://ssco.gsfc.nasa.gov/robotic_refueling_mission.html

    In space servicing and refuelling of satellites is already an established technology.
    http://ssco.gsfc.nasa.gov/quickfacts.html

    which means larger cargo ships,

    Returning materials – such as high value metals to Earth, does not need any ship at all. It just needs a strap-on rocket, or a catapult launch system, to direct the package to Earth, plus a heat-shield for atmospheric entry, and a parachute for landing.

    .. would they be sending a crew alongside, or just remote controlled or robotics?

    I would think robotics would be more appropriate especially for more distant sources and longer term trips.



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  • The future exploration and exploitation of the space resources will be a very expensive business and no individual country will be able to undertake this project by its own. I believe that the capitals needed to undertake mining and other activities in space will have to be raised in different countries of our planet and the profits of such operations will have to be shared among the investing countries, according to the quantities invested by each of these countries.



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  • Odalrich
    Feb 8, 2016 at 11:24 am

    The future exploration and exploitation of the space resources will be a very expensive business and no individual country will be able to undertake this project by its own.

    That is probably so, but once the returns start to come in, there will be investors.

    @OP -Christopher Barnatt, professional futurist and author of The Next Big Thing: From 3D Printing to Mining the Moon, says history shows us that if governments such as Luxembourg’s get behind asteroid mining, the space industry will deliver on its promise.

    Some companies and some countries are already investing in research, and may well follow this up.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-35482427

    The Luxembourg government has signalled its intention to get behind the mining of asteroids in space.

    It is going to support R&D in technologies that would make it possible and may even invest directly in some companies.

    The Grand Duchy will also put in place a legal framework to give operators who are based in the country the confidence to go about their business.

    Former European Space Agency boss Jean-Jacques Dordain is to be an adviser.

    He told reporters on Wednesday that space mining was no longer science fiction in the pages of a Jules Verne novel; that the basic technologies – of landing and returning materials from asteroids – had essentially been proven.

    And he urged European entrepreneurs to follow the example of start-up American companies that had already begun to consider how they could exploit the expensive metals, rare elements and other valuable resources in space bodies.

    “Things are moving in the United States and it was high time there was an initiative in Europe, and I am glad the first initiative is coming from Luxembourg,” he said. “It will give no excuse for European investors to go to California.”



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