Does Space Mining Really Need to Be Regulated?

Regulations will only slow things down, or bring them to a halt.

Planetory Resources wants to build a space craft and land it on an asteroid. Then, it wants to let robotic space miners go all Harry Stamper on it, looking to bring rare minerals back to Earth for a hefty profit.

But can they? Is it legal?

There is some debate on this. Art Dula, a space law professor (yes, there is such a thing) at the University of Houston says there’s no question. He said, “The 1967 Outer Space Treaty specifically permits the ‘use’ of outer space by nongovernmental entities. There is no suggestion in the treaty that commercial or business use would be prohibited.”

Joanna Gabrynowicz, a space law lawyer, says it isn’t that simple. Slate quotes her as saying, ““Non-state actors … are authorized to be in space, that’s what Article 6 of the Outer Space Treaty is all about. But we’ve just never reached agreement on what happens to extracted resources.”

There are others who say no one can mine is space because no one can own anything in space, thanks to the OST. Evidence of this is a 2001 court case where Gregory Nemitz, an American who laid claim to the asteroid Eros, tried to charge NASA parking fees for landing on what he claimed was his property. NASA and the State Department balked, citing the OST. Paul Larsen, yet another space law expert said, “The reason is that the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, Article II, specifically states ‘outer space … is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereign, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.'”

So what is the answer? What is the solution?

One possible fix being discussed is the “American Space Technology for Exploring Resource Opportunities In Deep Space Act” or the “ASTEROIDS Act.”

This is actually a good bill. One of the first things it does is protect private property rights:

PROPERTY RIGHTS.—Any resources obtained in outer space from an asteroid are the property of the entity that obtained such resources, which shall be entitled to all property rights thereto, consistent with applicable provisions of Federal law.”

The bill is short and sweet. It’s only five pages long, double spaced.

Gabrynowicz cited a problem with the bill, though. It doesn’t spell out who licenses and regulates space mining.

Because in America you can’t even braid hair without a license.

Remember, Planetary Resources isn’t sending humans to dig, but robots. The humans will be here on Earth, operating the machines remotely. This means regulators wouldn’t have to be in orbit to do inspections.

But is that really necessary? Isn’t it logical that a business with a serious financial burden on the front end, like space mining will have, would be overwhelmed with the desire to turn a profit? It follows they would.

And because of that desire, would they also be concerned about safety and the potential of creating a situation where they could be sued into oblivion? Again, it follows they would.

Then it also follows that those two motivators would create a big enough reason to perform in a way that does no harm and produces a return on their substantial investment. Certainly accidents could happen, but they can happen just as easily with a government agent holding a clipboard in the back of Mission Control. They’re accidents, after all.

But feeling a need to regulate this industry presupposes a desire to cut corners and willingly put people at risk, opening them up to injury or death.

It’s a common default for people to distrust business, but it’s illogical to hold this belief. Acting this way is self-destructive. It will only result in financial ruin.

Why? We have a healthy tort process in America and apparently enough space lawyers in the country to sue companies to the moon and back. That will be enough to motivate businesses like Planetary Resources to perform ethically without the need to stifle innovation through needless regulations.

By all means, work with nations to create a framework that allows the mining of celestial bodies. That is the reason we have a federal government. But leave the businesses working to bring back the resources alone so they can find the best way to get it done.

Regulations will only slow things down, or bring them to a halt.

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2 comments

  1. Keith Glass Reply

    If Planetary Resources was smart, it would apply for licenses from ANOTHER nation, one that would
    STAY bought for a reasonable annual fee….

  2. Ori Pomerantz Reply

    I’m sure at least one Caribbean nation can be persuaded to have rules that make it advantageous for space enterprises to incorporate under its jurisdiction instead.

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