Who Owns Asteroid Rights?

Tomorrow's Congressional hearing will discuss the exploitation of a new frontier

Concept art

Robotic asteroid mining might look like this.Deep Space Industries

Congress is back in session and getting right down to work on pressing science and technology issues like education funding, Net neutrality and ... oh wait. Actually, the House is holding a hearing on Wednesday to discuss a new law to manage resource mining in space: the ASTEROIDS Act (PDF).

No one seems to be asserting that managing mineral claims on asteroids is a pressing issue at the moment. But as Adam Minter reports today for Bloomberg, establishing a legal framework for it would probably help spur more entrepreneurial interest in the sector. James Cameron, Eric Schmidt, and Larry Page are among the investors in Washington State-based Planetary Resources, which plans to survey the "low-hanging fruit of the Solar System" using its Arkyd series of robotic spacecraft. Planetary Resources is also behind the Asteroid Zoo project, which exploits enables students, citizen scientists and other interested amateurs to hunt for undiscovered asteroids.

Texas-based Deep Space Industries last year announced plans to survey, prospect, harvest and process water and rare earth metals via a number of CubeSat-derived space probes called (...wait for it...) "Fireflies." Shiny!

The proposed legislation, dubbed ASTEROIDS (for American Space Technology for Exploring Resource Opportunities In Deep Space), would work with the existing legal rubric of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which prohibits national claims on celestial territories as well as claims by private sector entities within signatory nations. The proposed legislation would give U.S. companies ownership of any materials they mine from asteroids, although not ownership of the asteroid itself. Minter notes that it's an approach similar to current laws around claims to marine resources.

The ASTERIODS Act will need tweaks, however, to create a solid foundation for space mining once firms from different nations get into the act. There's a precedent for this too, Minter notes, “in U.S. law related to mining of the deep-sea bed (also a field that’s more speculative than real at the moment).”

Rather than accept an international authority to regulate such activity (under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS), U.S. law since the early 1980s has made provision for reciprocal recognition of deep-sea claims. In the mid-1980s, the U.S. extended reciprocity to the U.K., Japan, France and several other countries with similar laws. As applied to space, these agreements would not only offer long-term property assurances to space prospectors (and perhaps attract a broader range of international investors) but also represent a small but important step forward in building trust and perhaps even encouraging global collaboration in space ventures.

The ASTEROIDS Act is co-sponsored by Representatives Bill Posey (R-Fla.) and Dered Kilmer (D-Wash.). The Sept. 10 hearing before the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee begins at 10:00 am ET.

Lawmakers – and those watching via the livestream - will hear from a panel featuring experts from NASA, the National Research Council, The Planetary Society, and the Journal of Space Law.