Thar’s Gold in them Thar Asteroids! But Who Owns It?

miningmanIf you managed to snag an asteroid and tow it back to Earth, is it yours?  What are the laws about space resources?  Is Space Law the final frontier?

You may laugh, but this science fiction movie plot is coming closer and closer to becoming reality.  Planetary Resources is backed by Google billionaires Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, billionaire Ross Perot, Jr. and director James Cameron, among others.  The mission of Planetary Resources is to “apply commercial, innovative techniques to explore space. We will develop low-cost robotic spacecraft to explore the thousands of resource-rich asteroids within our reach. We will learn everything we can about them, then develop the most efficient capabilities to deliver these resources directly to both space-based and terrestrial customers. Asteroid mining may sound like fiction, but it’s just science.”

In plain English, they are going to mine asteroids for valuable resources.

The latest issue of Popular Mechanics features an article by Space Law expert, Glenn Harlan Reynolds, who reviews the questions surrounding the ownership of asteroids:  What is at stake?  Potentially trillions of dollars per large asteroid.  The 1967 Outer Space Treaty prevents national appropriation of celestial bodies but is silent on private appropriation and it fails to define “celestial bodies.”  Scholars are starting to weigh in on whether or not asteroids are celestial bodies.  Andrew Tingkang argues in Seattle University Law Review that if it can be moved, it isn’t a celestial body.  The full title of his Jedi Master-inspired work is These Aren’t the Asteroids You Are Looking For: Classifying Asteroids in Space as Chattels, Not Land.  If you don’t get it, go watch Star Wars:  A New Hope.

Reynolds agrees with Tingkang’s classification and analogizes to the distinction on Earth between “real” and “personal” property.  Real property stays put.  As he points out, a supertanker the size of a city can be personal property and it can move.

There are more questions than answers now and it will take many years for the situation to evolve and resolve but won’t it be fun to watch?  Do we have a new Wild West with the 21st century version of Forty-Niners?

For more information, check out the ABA newly published guidebook on Space Law or the ABA Space Law Committee.

For a humorous take on asteroid mining, take a look at this Jon Stewart segment from the Daily Show.

~Mary Susan Lucas~

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