WASHINGTON — Language in a new commercial space law that grants companies rights to resources they extract from asteroids and other solar system bodies provides them with some certainty, but they acknowledge that the law is likely not the last word on the issue.
President Barack Obama signed into law Nov. 25 the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, the final version of a commercial space bill approved by the House and Senate earlier in the month. Most of the bill is devoted to issues regarding commercial space transportation, including extensions of third-party launch indemnification and restrictions on regulations regarding safety of commercial spaceflight participants.
One section of the new law, though, that has received a large amount of attention is the part about space resources. That section states that U.S. citizens shall have rights to any resources they extract from asteroids, moons or other bodies, “including to possess, own, transport, use, and sell” those resources.
“It’s interesting that, for all the work we put into the bill, what really resonated with a lot of people was the resources section,” said Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF), in an online panel discussion about the bill held by his organization Dec. 1.
With that interest, though, has also come controversy. Some space law experts, particularly outside of the United States, have raised questions about whether the language in the new law might conflict with international accords like the Outer Space Treaty, which prohibits countries from claiming sovereignty over territory beyond Earth.
Even some people within the U.S. government have raised questions about the law. “I’m not sure that the U.S. Congress can pass a law that authorizes American citizens to go do something” like claim rights to space resources, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said at a Dec. 1 meeting of the NASA Advisory Council at the Johnson Space Center, when asked by a council member about the new law.
Bolden said he’s asked lawyers for their opinions about the new law and how it might affect NASA’s exploration plans, such as enhancing commercial use of space. “It is encouraging the entrepreneurs and others who say they want to go mine asteroids and mine the moon and the like, so I’m encouraged by their encouragement,” he said.
A White House official, though, said he believed the law was consistent with the country’s treaty obligations. “It was definitely something we knew we wanted to support,” said Tom Kalil, deputy director for technology and innovation at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, during the CSF panel. The State Department, he said, provided assistance to members of Congress drafting the bill to make sure it complied with those treaties.
Kalil said the resource rights section of the law was important to eliminate any concerns among companies and their investors that they could make use of resources they might extract. “If there’s ambiguity about whether companies that make these investments in the extraction of resources in space have the rights to be able to do that,” he said, “that’s going to have a chilling effect on private investment.”
That sentiment is shared by some of the companies with long-term plans to mine asteroids or the moon for resources. “This gives our investors a sense of stability and assurance that their investment can be protected,” said Peter Marquez, vice president for global engagement at Planetary Resources.
Bob Richards, chief executive of Moon Express, likened the law to fishing in international waters. “They don’t own the water and they don’t own the fish, but they have the right to put the nets into the water and bring the fish onto the decks,” he said, “and once the fish are there, they own the fish.”
However, companies with space resource plans acknowledged that they will have to deal with concerns about the bill, particularly at forums like the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS).
“This topic matter is rife with the opportunity for misperception and misunderstanding,” said Mike Gold, director of Washington operations and business growth at Bigelow Aerospace. It’s likely, he said, that at the next COPUOS meeting in February “there will be an outcry from many nations about the U.S. flaunting the Outer Space Treaty.”
Gold said that it’s important for the U.S. government and companies to explain at COPUOS and elsewhere how this bill is consistent with the Outer Space Treaty. “This is the beginning, not the ending, of the discussion that will take place internationally,” Gold said.