U.S. President Barack Obama signed legislation on Wednesday providing a framework for space companies to mine ore from asteroids and other bodies, but legal critics are worried the measure could lead to violations of international law.
The Space Resource Exploration and Utilization Act gives any American who successfully extracts natural resources from outer space the property rights over the haul.
But it has long been agreed between countries that outer space is not to become another Wild West, some legal scholars argue, and the new law risks privatizing a realm that is meant to belong to all of humanity.
"My view is that natural resources [in space] should not be allowed to be appropriated by anyone — states, private companies, or international organizations," said Ram Jakhu, a professor at McGill University's institute of air and space law.
He said the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, signed by the U.S. and other countries, including Canada, makes it clear that the surfaces and contents of asteroids and other celestial bodies are protected from commercial harvesting.
The treaty's Article 2 reads, "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."
That view isn't unanimous among legal scholars, however. Some say small asteroids don't qualify as "celestial bodies," while others say it's not "appropriating" an asteroid to extract minerals from it. And the new law does contain a clause making it clear the U.S. isn't asserting sovereignty or exclusive rights over any celestial body.
Ricky Lee, an Australian lawyer who wrote his doctoral thesis on the legalities of space mining, said companies are already making routine, for-profit use of limited space resources by launching satellites into low orbits, and especially into high-up geostationary orbits, of which there are a maximum number of slots available.
"So the idea that commercial use of space resources is prohibited by the Outer Space Treaty... is quite simply absurd," he said in an email.