European specialists in space law on Dec. 4 said the recently enacted U.S. Commercial Space Act may contravene international treaties and will inevitably stir up a hornet’s nest of opposition.
The law confers on U.S. citizens the right to engage in commercial exploitation of outer space minerals, a right that might be viewed as violating the United Nations Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which says in part: “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.”
The United States is a signatory to this treaty.
On Nov. 25, U.S. President Barack Obama signed into law the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, whose shorthand title is the Commercial Space Act of 2015.
The law includes a chapter on “space resource commercial exploitation and utilization” whose language is clear enough. The goal, the law says, is to “facilitate commercial exploitation for, and commercial recovery of, space resources by United States citizens.” The act defines space resources as including water and minerals.
The law was applauded by commercial space advocates in the United States as removing an obstacle to capital investment in companies planning to mine resources on the moon or elsewhere.
None of these companies has raised anywhere near the financing needed to start commercial mining, but the law’s passage excited enormous discussion on social media networks, including allegations that it was a “criminal” appropriation by the United States of the global commons.
“Is the Commercial Space Act a violation of the Outer Space Treaty’s prohibition of national appropriation?” asked Alexander Soucek, head of the legal services department at the 22-nation European Space Agency. “It is very controversial; I can say that. There are lots of opinions on this.”