The U.S. Congress has taken a step forward towards defining out-of-Earth’s property rights by passing this week a commercial space bill that would help asteroid miners delimit the scope of their businesses.
Until now, there was no legislation clarifying issues such as whether resources mined from celestial bodies could be sold on Earth, or what would happen if someone other than a base-owner needs or wants to land there.
The “Space Resource Exploration and Utilization Act” guarantees to U.S. space corporations the rights to keep whatever they dig up in outer space:
Any asteroid resources obtained in outer space 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.
Among other things, the proposed law would delay any airline-style regulation of space tourism until at least 2025, provide liability protection for some launches, and streamline permitting processes.
If enacted, it also would create new commercial property rights in space that have some space lawyers (they do exist!) worried about possible major repercussions.
Berin Szoka, head of the libertarian technology policy think tank TechFreedom, is one of the many experts that have warned about the lack of legislation on ownership of resources extracted from the Moon, planets, comets and other bodies.
In a letter addressed to Congress, he said that without effective property rights, the vast resources available beyond Earth will benefit “no one.”
“The technologies needed to open the space frontier to sustainable settlement will never be developed, let alone deployed, unless investors know that they have enforceable rights to the fruits of their investments and the ability to operate peacefully without interference,” he wrote.
Szoka warned that, if the issue is perceived as being approached in an imperialistic way, the bill could either revive interest in the Moon Treaty (which bans private property in space), or trigger a very narrow reading of the outer space treaty.
Geologists believe asteroids are packed with iron ore, nickel and precious metals at much higher concentrations than those found on Earth, making up a market valued in the trillions of dollars.