‘There’s Gold in Them Thar Stars’: Property Rights in Space
The 21st century will herald scientific and technological advancements we can’t even begin to imagine. With the advent of private companies embarking on space exploration it is only a matter of time before legal issues of one sort or another will come before the courts.
What kind of issues? Here’s a look over the horizon.
There are minerals on asteroids and even on the moon- including very rare and valuable minerals. One US company has announced plans to mine both minerals and water on asteroids.
With this kind of money involved there are bound to be lawyers looking for a niche and governments looking to tax, regulate and otherwise control as much as they can. This is not necessarily a bad thing but there will inevitably be headbutting between private industry and the government as this brave new world emerges.
Oh, and we haven’t yet even decided on how mineral claims on extra terrestrial bodies will be determined and administered…
Ever since space travel began in the 1950s, space enthusiasts have dreamed that the exploration of space would lead to the colonization of space by human beings. From Arthur C. Clarke’s visions of colonies on the Moon to the plans of the Mars Society today, the goal of human settlements on celestial bodies has inspired scientists and science fiction writers, and to a lesser extent politicians and entrepreneurs. But progress toward a permanent human presence in space has stalled. Scientific research conducted by people in orbiting labs like the International Space Station has contributed modestly to our knowledge of living in space. Unmanned satellites for telecommunications, defense, weather monitoring, scientific research, and other applications have proliferated over the last half-century. However, practical, economic development of space — treating it not as a mere borderland of Earth, but a new frontier in its own right — has not materialized. Still, the promise is as great as it ever was, and, contrary to popular opinion, is eminently achievable — but only if the current legal framework and attitude toward space can be shifted toward seeing it as a realm not just of human exploration, but also of human enterprise.
Space contains valuable resources. These provide a compelling reason for entrepreneurs, investors, and governments to pursue space exploration and settlement. Asteroids are known to be rich in valuable elements like neodymium, scandium, yttrium, iridium, platinum, and palladium, most of which are rare on Earth. Because of the high price that these minerals command, harvesting them from space could possibly justify even very costly mining expeditions. This is the hope of Planetary Resources, a company recently formed and funded by Google executives Larry Page and Eric Schmidt with the intent of mining asteroids. Similarly, Microsoft billionaire Naveen Jain has founded the company Moon Express, with plans to use robots to start mining the Moon — as early as next year, it claims. Meanwhile, Texas-based Shackleton Energy Company plans to mine ice in Shackleton Crater at the lunar south pole to provide propellant for planetary missions, and is raising funds for the venture now.
The basic technology for space travel necessary for off-planet development has of course existed for several decades; the United States did, after all, put a man on the Moon in 1969. And recent advances in spacefaring technology, like the SpaceX Falcon Heavy launcher, promise to reduce the cost of transporting people and goods to and from outer space. This new rocket will deliver about fifty metric tons of payload to low-Earth orbit at a price of $120 million, allowing material to be shipped to space for about a thousand dollars per pound — far less than the tens of thousands of dollars per pound that technologies like NASA’s retired space shuttle cost to ferry cargo. And if SpaceX or some other company can achieve the goal of partial or full reusability, the price of launching goods into orbit will likely drop much further, especially if market forces bring more competitors into the field.