Asteroid mining gets real (and ugly)

AMERICANS have always been good at innovation, but they also seem to like litigation and political quagmires. No wonder they’re leading the charge with asteroid mining.
Asteroid mining gets real (and ugly) Asteroid mining gets real (and ugly) Asteroid mining gets real (and ugly) Asteroid mining gets real (and ugly) Asteroid mining gets real (and ugly)

Conceptual image by Deep Space Industries

Justin Niessner

For those still rolling their eyes about this overly ambitious science fiction stuff, the asteroid mining movement took another step towards legitimacy in September with a US Congressional hearing to consider recently drafted space mining legislation.

The Asteroids Act of 2014 is the first formal bill written to promote the development of a commercial space resources industry in the US.

The name of the proposed law is a contrived acronym for the American Space Technology for Exploring Resource Opportunities in Deep Space Act.

This nomenclature follows in the footsteps of the controversial USA Patriot Act, which stands for Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act. No kidding.

The whole name thing is a point worth emphasising because American lawmakers seem to instinctively know that these policies eventually get pushed through on marketability – image is everything.

A US civic transparency service called GovTrack has given the Asteroids Act a 27% chance of getting past committee. That may not sound like great odds, but considering 89% of bills get stonewalled right off the bat, it suggests that politicians are not just rolling their eyes at all this science fiction stuff.

Congress’s space subcommittee held a hearing to review the issues this month, achieving what Congress is known for achieving (read: not much), but also helping to establish two key points about asteroid mining.

These points are that asteroid mining will be developed and that the red tape will be thick.

Timeframes, economies and the ramifications of the legal and political fallout, however, remain nebulous.

“At this time there is not a clear legal precedent for how these companies would claim ownership of resources extracted from asteroids,” the space committee said.

“Without a guarantee of property rights to minerals extracted from an asteroid (not rights to ownership of an asteroid), there is no incentive for these companies to engage in this activity.”

The bit in parentheses is the critical issue here.

The United Nations’ Outer Space Treaty of 1967 prohibited the national appropriation of celestial bodies as well as military use of the moon and nuclear weapons in orbit.

Congress noted that the treaty defined space objects as the “common heritage of mankind”, but the question remained whether this ban on national exploitation extended to the commercial endeavours of private companies.

The space committee also evoked the General Mining Act of 1872 which authorised claims made on federal lands, the Convention of the Law of the Sea (international waters) and precedents made in the oil and gas industry.

Unfortunately, the difficulties of untangling undersea or even Antarctic mining seem trivial compared to the geopolitical implications of defining ownership in space.

Global security interests both military and economic will ensure that litigation about mining in space will be international – and therefore practically unenforceable.

Which brings us back to marketing.

The US Congress doesn’t have a very good reputation when it comes to understanding science or business, but it has a way with pushing seemingly intractable issues forward.

The strongest industrial momentum has come from Yankee shores as well, with Planetary Resources making the most headlines as an asteroid mining hopeful supported by the likes of Google founder Larry Page and Virgin Group founder Richard Branson.

Other players have included a space mining services provider based outside Washington called Deep Space Industries, which has planned to start operations in 2016 and was awarded two contracts in June by NASA to partner on asteroid prospecting and harvesting.

With the legal and political headaches of asteroid mining set to be a virtually inexhaustible source of international contention, it may be up to these pioneers in the field to keep space mining from becoming a profit-happy Wild West.

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