Outer space law and future of space mining

Hi everyone!

We’re already in the second month of the year. Though if I’m being completely honest, I didn’t feel like January just zoom passed me, contrary to what I felt in the previous year! May be that’s because I’ve spent the month of January mostly waiting. First for my visa application to get approved, then for my quarantine and travel arrangements and then for finding a decent room to rent haha! And on top of all these, just when I thought everything was finally coming together and my wait was practically over, the new travel regulations have messed up my plans a little. While I’m writing this blog, I’m still waiting to hear from the University regarding how the new rules will affect my previous travel/quarantine plans .

Anyways, now that I’ve made you all read my ‘sob-story’, I’ll move onto the main topic I wanted to talk about in this blog. At the start of this new semester, I took a law course especially focused on the outer space laws taught by the wonderful Dr. Valerie Oosterveld. When I first heard about this course, I was instantly intrigued. To me, this felt like a rare opportunity to see the planetary science community from a different, non-science perspective. And honestly, I wasn’t disappointed at all. I learnt about some really interesting concepts of the outer space law, including, the core treaties, international laws regarding satellite use, the militarization of space, the management of space debris, future of space mining and so on. While some of the things I learnt in the course seemed practical and expected even, some came as a surprise! This course kind of taught me to look at the bigger picture instead of just focusing on the science.

While, each day I learnt many new aspects of the space law, personally, not all of them were equally interesting. I mean I really tried to like them all equally, but some just didn’t click for me I guess! For example, I find the concept of international laws for satellite use a bit mundane haha. I found out that I’m really interested in space laws related to space debris management and potential asteroid (or any planetary body) mining! That may be because there’s a lot of ‘space‘ for improvement in the current laws for these aspects or may be because I find these two aspects of space law to be the closest to the science side of space I’m invested in.

Anyway, for the completion of the course I have to write a final paper and I’m a bit inclined towards the concept of space mining even though the idea might sound a bit far-fetched for the near future. I think we’ve already established that potential resources from space mining are near-infinite. The most important of them all being water. Not only the water extracted from the outer space could be used for drinking purposes but also for rocket fuel and to convert it into breathable oxygen. This mined water could be made available in space to be used as a propellant which could drastically alleviate the cost of space travel as we wouldn’t have to spend extraordinary amount in launching the cargo (~$20,000 to send a litter of water) from Earth. Additionally, studies show that mining a single water-rich asteroid of about 500 m size could give us enough water to fuel every rocket launched in the history. In addition to water, there are also other important resources like Titanium and Platinum in ample amount on the Moon and other asteroids. According to experts, a platinum-rich asteroid of about 500 m in size could give us platinum worth $2.9 trillion!! That’s 174 times the current yearly output of platinum on Earth.

All these amazing resources and their usefulness is great and all, but from what I learnt in this course, it turns out that the current legal framework is too ambiguous and vague to facilitate the concept of space mining. The Outer Space Treaty (OST) and its legal framework governing space mining is basically a product of the Cold War era and thus it prohibits any kind of ‘national appropriation’ of celestial objects by claim of sovereignty. So, in a literal sense this treaty prohibits the practice of space mining! However, the treaty also advocates for ‘exploration and use’ of outer space for peaceful purposes in the common interest of all humankind (well, the treaty says mankind, but NO). You see what I mean by ambiguous!?

Furthermore, there is also the issue of whether or not private companies are legally allowed to practice space mining under the OST! The government agencies continue to be a significant part of the space economy but their role has been declining with time, mostly due to budgetary issues. On the contrary, in recent years, the role of private companies in space has expanded substantially. In a situation like this, the shortcomings of the legal framework of the OST can become an issue (i.e. liability and resource claim). It seems, different countries have different interpretations for this issue, which isn’t surprising in the least haha! Countries like the US and Luxembourg are in favour of asteroid mining being legal under the existing international laws, whereas Russia and Brazil are both of the opinion that it’s a violation of the OST.

After reading through some really interesting materials on the subject, I think it’s a high time we made some modifications to the current space laws to address the ‘resource claim’ & ‘liability’ ambiguities in the OST and to permit private companies to engage in space mining provided they maintain the core principles of international peace and cooperation. However, I want to make this into more of an open discussion rather than just a blog. So, I’d like to know your thoughts on private companies taking charge of space mining and how do you think the current space laws play a role in it!

Until next time!

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