Get Your Pickaxe and Spacecraft Ready, Space Mining Might be Legal Very Soon

The new Space Act would open up the potentially lucrative field of asteroid mining

Soon, space miners could lay claim to minerals in asteroids like this one. NASA/Roger Ressmeyer/CORBIS

The United States Senate has given the go-ahead to space mining. Earlier this week, the Senate passed the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act which, among other things, will make mining asteroids for profit officially legal.

Until now, space mining has been in a murky legal limbo. While the 1967 Outer Space Treaty doesn’t explicitly say anything about mining asteroids for minerals, it does ban nations from owning any property in space.

Now, the Space Act defines clear regulations for how the growing commercial space industry can stake claim to whatever materials they might one day mine in deep space, Sarah Fecht writes for Popular Science.

"This bill provides the boost America’s private space partners need as they lead the world into the future," Texas Representative Lamar Smith, who chairs the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, said in a statement. "This bill will keep America at the forefront of aerospace technology, create jobs, reduce red tape, promote safety, and inspire the next generation of explorers."

At its core, the Space Act opens up a lot of opportunities for commercial spaceflight companies, a sector that has grown rapidly over the last 20 years. Under this bill, companies like Planetary Resources, SpaceX and Virgin Galactic will be able to own and sell most materials they mine in space. The Space Act also extends the “learning period” where new commercial space companies can test and operate their equipment without close scrutiny by the government, Eric Berger reports for Ars Technica.

"Many years from now, we will view this pivotal moment in time as a major step toward humanity becoming a multi-planetary species," Planetary Resources Co-Chairman Eric Anderson said in a statement. "This legislation establishes the same supportive framework that created the great economies of history, and it will foster the sustained development of space."

The Google-backed space mining company’s president and chief engineer, Chris Lewicki, also praised the Senate’s vote, comparing the Space Act to the Homestead Act of 1862, which distributed more than 400 million acres of land in the American West to miners, railroad companies and speculators.

The Space Act does implement some limits to what space miners can claim: While they can own anything they extract from an asteroid, for example, mining companies can’t own the asteroid itself. The Senate also clarified that miners can only claim “abiotic” materials they find, meaning they will have to stick to minerals and elements—owning any form of alien life is off the table, Fecht reports.

The bill hasn’t been signed into law yet, but it is expected to pass another round in the House of Representatives before being sent to President Obama. But while the Space Act may be popular with the U.S. government and businesses, handing out property rights to space miners might be seen as the U.S. claiming ownership over resources in space, K.G. Orphanides reports for Wired:

Handing out the right to exploit chunks of space to your citizens sounds very much like a claim of sovereignty, despite the Space Act's direct statement that "the United States does not thereby assert sovereignty or sovereign or exclusive rights or jurisdiction over, or the ownership of, any celestial body."

As countries and companies around the world start eyeing the abundant resources locked in asteroids whizzing through our solar system, property rights in space might start getting tricky very soon.

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