In a rare show of bipartisanship, US Democrat and Republican politicians have passed the US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act. The Act, which has been signed into law by President Barack Obama, opens the way for US citizens and corporations to own and sell natural resources mined from asteroids and other celestial bodies in outer space. It also extends indemnification for space tourism and resources companies until 2025.
“This bill provides the boost America’s private space partners need as they lead the world into the future,” Lamar Smith, chairman of the US Congress’s House Science, Space and Technology Committee, declared. “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.”
A number of companies, including Planetary Resources, Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin and SpaceX, are eyeing off the commercial potential of reaching the stars, so naturally they applauded the new law.
“Many years from now, we will view this pivotal moment in time as a major step toward humanity becoming a multi-planetary species,” Eric Anderson, Planetary Resources co-founder and co-chairman, said. “This legislation establishes the same supportive framework that created the great economies of history, and it will foster the sustained development of space.”
A “full-frontal” attack on space law?
However, not everyone is happy with the new “Space Act”. Gbenga Oduntan, a senior lecturer in international commercial law at the University of Kent, UK, denounced the legislation as a contravention of international law and the “most significant salvo that has been fired in the ideological ownership of the cosmos”.
In an article for The Conversation, Oduntan wrote that the new Space Act is a “full-frontal attack on settled principles of space law” – embodied in the United Nations’ Outer Space Treaty of 1967 and the Moon Agreement of 1979 – which aim to encourage nation-states to undertake scientific exploration of outer space and other celestial bodies and prevent “unilateral and unbridled commercial exploitation” of outer space resources.
In particular, Oduntan argued that enabling companies to potentially extract certain resources flies against the very first provision of the Outer Space Treaty – that such exploitation and use shall be undertaken for the benefit and in the interests of all nations. He argued this provision explicitly precludes the sale of space-based minerals for profit.
Oduntan added that the Moon Agreement also forbids nation-states from conducting commercial mining on planets and asteroids in the absence of an international regime for such exploitation (eg a United Nations mining inspectorate).
The US is a signatory to the Outer Space Treaty but not to the Moon Agreement. Nevertheless, Oduntan argued that the Moon Agreement is “binding as customary international law”.
Oduntan predicted that as the list of nation-states with access to outer space grows (eg China, France, Germany, Japan, Russia, India), they may also respond with similar outer space mining legislation of their own.
“That means the pristine conditions of the cradle of nature from which our own Earth was born may be irrevocably altered forever – making it harder to trace how we came into being,” he reasoned. “Similarly, if we started contaminating celestial bodies with microbes from Earth, it could ruin our chances of ever finding alien life there.”
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