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Commercial Space Redux: Asteroid Mining

We have seen in the last couple years the expansion of space exploration outside the realm of state projects, beginning with the space tourism business which has been (or will be) taking off at some point.

Now, led by two Google execs, a group of billionaires have formed Planetary Resources, a company that will send ships into space to mine asteroids, bringing precious resources back to Earth. However, the question arises: Whose property is the asteroid and everything in it?

View from one end of Eros across the gouge on ...

View from one end of Eros across the gouge on its side towards the opposite end.(greyscale) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The most relevant law is the Outer Space Treaty (1967), which established that no nation could claim sovereignty over any part of space, or essentially anything off Earth. However, this Cold-War era agreement is not relevant today; it is clear that the it’s purpose was to not allow the United States or Soviet Union full hegemony over the realm of space while the rest of the world just watched.  It is meant to pertain to states themselves, not corporations. The treaty permits commercial or business use.

However, the other end of the spectrum involves a 2001 court case. The year before, an American man named Gergory Nemitz had registered a claim to the asteroid Eros, despite never having been there himself to see it.  When NASA sent a satellite, he wrote a letter demanding “parking fees,” but was declined.  It wasn’t without a laugh, though, I’m sure.

According to NASA, the Outer Space Treaty includes states and all their nationals, meaning that Nemitz fell under the terms of the treaty his country signed, and thus could not claim the asteroid.  By this token, anything that Planetary Resources could bring back would be the property of humankind, not the company.

The difference being, of course, that Nemitz had not actually been to Eros, and thus had no claim to it.  Human history is full of examples of individuals or corporations claiming lands or resources, but at each time they went and found them themselves.  Columbus claimed Hispaniola for Spain when he got there, and not before.  Just because we know something exists doesn’t mean that anyone can claim it as their property.  If this corporation spends the money to build a spacecraft and gets to Eros, they should be able to claim it, and try to make whatever money they can from it.  Probably not much in the way of resources, but in publicity, they will make a killing.

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