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US Senate passes Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act

15 Dec 15  | Engineering |  Technology
President Obama signs legislation recognising private mining rights in space

Space mining sounds like the province of science fiction novels, but at the end of November US President Barack Obama signed legislation which provides for the commercial extraction of minerals and other materials, including water, from asteroids, the moon and other celestial bodies.

The US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015 says that any materials American individuals or organisations find on an asteroid or moon are theirs to do with and keep as they please.

This causes something of a conflict with the only existing international treaty regarding the use of the cosmos, the Outer Space Treaty of 1966, which recognises ‘the common interest of mankind in the exploration and use of outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, as an area for space activities of all countries, without any difference in their economic and scientific development; such exploration and use having become “the province of all mankind” and renounces the ‘national appropriation of outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, by any means’, and of which the United States is a signatory.

One argument the Americans could make is that the rights their new legislation provides do not refer to the Moon or celestial bodies as wholes, but instead to materials removed from such bodies. Surely, though, materials removed from the Moon were, previously, a part of the whole, and therefore protected from national appropriation.

An alternate possible argument would be that the new legislation does not confer rights of ‘national appropriation’, as forbidden by the 1966 Treaty, but instead provides individual and private rights. Both of these arguments, however, are based on semantics and do not embody the spirit with which the original Treaty was signed.

Another problem arises when we examine whether the American government even possesses the power to infer such rights upon their citizens. It would seem more likely that, given the international nature of the original Space Treaty, that any rights to be conferred upon individuals, private corporations or even governments should be agreed upon by an international committee, as opposed to each nation taking it upon themselves to create new rights and laws which may impinge on the rights of other states and their nationals.

While it seems unlikely that the global political stage will allow the US legislation to have legal effect, the idea of ‘space mining’ is nonetheless fascinating, and could lead to a resurgence of the mining industry, albeit with a very different new destination in mind, and far more diverse technologies required: not only will miners need the usual tools and equipment for extracting precious metals and the like, but they will also need a whole host of new gear to allow them to survive in an environment almost unrivalled in its inhospitality. This could create an entire new market of jobs for engineering and technical specialists, which is a field already stretched to breaking point by a severe skill shortage.

We are in desperate need of more young people entering STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) related fields, and this new development in US law, which will undoubtedly lead to a global conversation and perhaps further, international legislation on the subject, will only compound this need. It may be fair to say that the future of mankind, or at least the kind of future we can hope for, rests on the academic decisions of our children. It is our responsibility to make sure they understand what is ahead, and how the future is theirs to shape, if they put their minds to it and work together to create a world they can be proud to leave behind.

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