Last week, the U.S. Congress passed the US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015 (or the “Space Act”), which will authorize private U.S. companies to own and sell resources they extract from objects in space. Supporters (and detractors) are calling this historic, because it is the first time the U.S. government has plainly authorized commercial exploitation of outer space resources. Here is some key language from the bill, which President Obama is expected to sign.
“§ 51303. Asteroid resource and space resource rights
“A United States citizen engaged in commercial recovery of an asteroid resource or a space resource under this chapter shall be entitled to any asteroid resource or space resource obtained, including to possess, own, transport, use, and sell the asteroid resource or space resource obtained in accordance with applicable law, including the international obligations of the United States.”.
The exploration and use of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development, and shall be the province of all mankind.
There is also Article II, which seems to restrict claims of sovereignty in outer space.
Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.
It is the sense of Congress that by the enactment of this Act, the United States does not thereby assert sovereignty or sovereign or exclusive rights or jurisdiction over, or the ownership of, any celestial body.
I think the law’s backers are correct that it does not violate US treaty obligations. All it does is allow private US citizens to “possess, own, transport, use, and sell” extraterrestrial resources without violating U.S. law.
On the other hand, it is also true that other spacefaring countries could allow their citizens to do the same. Indeed, I think their government space agencies could probably also do so, als long as they are not “claiming sovereignty.” Without an explicit international treaty regulating commercial space resource exploitation, it will ultimately be a question of each country’s domestic regulations. Can the U.S. live with that result?
I think it can. In my view, the UN Law of the Sea created a complicated bureaucracy for handling management of the international seabed, way before any commercial exploitation of that seabed was even possible. We don’t know yet what types of exploitation are feasible, and we might as well let this process evolve on its own before demanding a worldwide international treaty on the subject. There will be plenty of time for that.