Mining asteroids may sound like a concept ripped from science fiction, but a new law is aiming to make it a reality. On November 25 Pres. Barack Obama signed the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, a bill intended to spur private space exploration by limiting governmental regulations until September 2023. That time frame is meant to allow a learning period for private companies to develop the technology necessary for future goals such as space tourism, commercial spaceflight and space mining. To that end the bill explicitly allows companies or individuals to claim ownership of any resources and minerals they are able to collect in space—a right that was previously murky under the law.
The hunt for useful materials in space is integral to many private space exploration companies’ plans. “There are resources that support operation and human activity in space, there are resources that support manufacturing in space and then maybe there are resources that are important enough and valuable enough to bring those resources back to Earth,” says Chris Lewicki, president and chief engineer of Planetary Resources, a private space company focused on asteroid mining.
One of the reasons space launches, especially crewed missions, are expensive is the cost of transporting materials. Water and rocket fuel, the latter of which can be derived from the hydrogen and oxygen in water molecules, are two particular resources that people like Lewicki have an eye on. “There’s an abundance of water in space, and if we don’t have to spend $50 million to transport every ton of water or $50 million for rocket fuel, it’s like building gas stations along an interstate highway,” Lewicki says.
These types of resources are not just appealing to commercial outfits—they could benefit NASA as well by enabling a more affordable and more expansive human presence in space. That part of the bill most excites Thomas Kalil, deputy director for policy in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. “If we could image a future in which more and more of the matter and energy we’re using in space comes from space, that would enable us to create a solar system civilization—to extend human presence into the solar system not just to visit but to stay,” Kalil said in a Google Hangout on Tuesday hosted by the Commercial Spaceflight Federation.
The question of bringing valuable space-based resources back to Earth is another matter. Platinum-group elements (including palladium and rhodium) are expensive due to their scarcity on Earth and their utility in electronics and fuel cells. These elements, however, are abundant in space, specifically in high concentrations in asteroids. “Our goal is one day we would be able to make platinum very abundant and make a resource that would be available to engineers,” Lewicki says.
Under the new bill companies such as Planetary Resources would own the platinum they obtained from an asteroid—although not the asteroid itself—and would have the right to sell it back on Earth. Whether or not such mining will be economically viable in the long-term depends on how much platinum companies can obtain and whether the new sources increase the supply enough that its price dramatically decreases, along with the cost of launching to and returning from space. “There is no guarantee of a profit or of success,” says Henry Hertzfeld, an expert in space law and commercial space use at The George Washington University. “We’ve seen many private sector investments come and go over the years.”
This uncertainty is especially true as resource mining in space is still in its infancy. “Most of these companies right now are looking around at asteroids and putting telescopes up and trying to figure out what’s worth doing and where,” Hertzfeld adds. The precise details of how companies will travel to asteroids, let alone how they will extract specific resources from those asteroids and then return them, have yet to be determined.
Before the bill the law had been ambiguous about who would own resources extracted from solar system bodies. According to the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, no nation can claim ownership of any celestial object—be it asteroid, moon or planet. This bill does not contest that rule but it formally codifies what has been the unofficial policy of the U.S. since the 1970s: Private companies can claim ownership over resources they obtain from asteroids, moons and other celestial bodies, but they cannot own the bodies themselves.
Still, any legislation that sets out ownership rights in space, even if those rights extend only to resources physically obtained by companies, will meet with some resistance. “I know there will be push-back internationally,” Herzfeld says. “In what form and how strong, and what the timing of how other nations react to this is something I don’t know and can’t predict. But not all are going to like it, that I do know for sure.” In the eyes of U.S. lawmakers this bill is a fair interpretation of the Outer Space Treaty, but other nations could see it differently. Private ownership of space material is a sensitive subject because for-profit use of space arguably would not benefit all humankind as the treaty calls for. Companies in other nations interested in asteroid mining or private space exploration might choose to work out of the U.S. to take advantage of the legal protection as well or call for their own governments to adopt similar bills.
The bill is not restricted to asteroid mining but covers many areas of law related to commercial space exploration. There are sections that repeal certain existing time limits on permits for private spacecraft and enable the U.S. Department of Transportation (DoT) to issue experimental permits for repeated launches by a single vehicle as well as a section that specifies that liability insurance can cover “spaceflight participants.” The bill also calls for further studies by the DoT, NASA and the Department of Defense in order to better understand what the future regulations and laws governing the industry will need to be. “This is the beginning of the process, not the end,” said Mike Gold of Bigelow Aerospace, a company aiming to build inflatable space habitats.” This [law] is a terrific start but I would caution anyone from popping the champagne just yet.”