Should asteroids rich in precious metals be regarded, in legal terms, like the fish in the sea? That is one approach the United Nations could take as it struggles to come to terms with mining plans announced by Planetary Resources, a startup company based in Seattle.
In just under two years, Planetary Resources says it will launch the first of a series of space telescopes into low-Earth orbit in a bid to spot nearby asteroids of a size and mineral composition potentially worth mining. When a strong candidate is found, it plans to dispatch a robotic probe to assess the asteroid's precious metal content, with platinum a priority. If that is found, yet-to-be developed robots will be dispatched to mine it. If it is small enough, the asteroid could be brought into an Earth orbit first, to make the process easier.
Planetary Resources' plans seem well advanced and others are not far behind. And it's not just asteroids in these firms' sights. Moon Express, a startup based in Las Vegas, is planning to prospect the moon for platinum and other metals deposited on its surface by meteorites.
It all sounds mind-bogglingly expensive and complicated, and it is. But those planning the operations have more earthly concerns to deal with, too. Mining asteroids or the moon appears to violate many of the tenets of international space law.
The most important of these is the U.N.'s Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which in rather pompous language states that "the exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind."
It also specifically prohibits states from making territorial claims in space. "States cannot claim rights over an asteroid," says Joanne Wheeler, a lawyer at London legal practice CMS Cameron McKenna and a U.K. government adviser on the U.N.'s Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. "The Outer Space Treaty says the moon and celestial bodies such as asteroids are not subject to national appropriation. Whether that means no one owns the asteroids, or we all do under some common heritage, what's clear here is there is no state sovereignty over them."
What applies to sovereign states probably also applies to private companies. "It is not possible for Planetary Resources to say it owns all of an asteroid even if they are the first there," says Wheeler.
If the ownership of an asteroid is in question, who, then, has legal title to the ores extracted from it and sold back on Earth? Again, it is not clear, though Wheeler points out that there is already a legitimate market for space rocks in the form of meteorites. This probably puts Planetary Resources in the clear.