Language in a new commercial space law that grants companies rights to resources they extract from asteroids and other solar system bodies provides them with some certainty, but they acknowledge that the law is likely not the last word on the issue.
President Barack Obama signed into law Nov. 25 the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, the final version of a commercial space bill approved by the House and Senate earlier in the month. Most of the bill is devoted to issues regarding commercial space transportation, including extensions of third-party launch indemnification and restrictions on regulations regarding safety of commercial spaceflight participants.
One section of the new law, though, that has received a large amount of attention is the part about space resources. That section states that U.S. citizens shall have rights to any resources they extract from asteroids, moons or other bodies, “including to possess, own, transport, use, and sell” those resources.
With that interest, though, has also come controversy. Some space law experts, particularly outside of the United States, have raised questions about whether the language in the new law might conflict with international accords like the Outer Space Treaty, which prohibits countries from claiming sovereignty over territory beyond Earth.
Even some people within the U.S. government have raised questions about the law. “I’m not sure that the U.S. Congress can pass a law that authorizes American citizens to go do something” like claim rights to space resources, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said at a Dec. 1 meeting of the NASA Advisory Council at the Johnson Space Center, when asked by a council member about the new law.
Bolden said he’s asked lawyers for their opinions about the new law and how it might affect NASA’s exploration plans, such as enhancing commercial use of space. “It is encouraging the entrepreneurs and others who say they want to go mine asteroids and mine the moon and the like, so I’m encouraged by their encouragement,” he said.
The question also remains whether or not its even practical.