If You Mine An Asteroid, Who Does The Property Belong To?

There have been several proposals in recent months to visit asteroids — NASA is talking about sending astronauts to an asteroid sometime, and both Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries have outlined distant plans to mine these space rocks for resources.

But once the stuff is extracted, who does it belong to? A bill being considered by the U.S. House of Representatives says it would belong to “the property of the entity that obtained such resources.”

In a blog on Space Politics, aerospace analyst Jeff Foust outlined a discussion on the bill at the NewSpace 2014 conference last week. There are still a few wrinkles to be worked out, with one of the most pressing being to define what the definition of an asteroid is. Also, the backers of the bill are talking with the U.S. State Department to see if it would conflict with any international treaty obligations. (Here’s a copy of the bill on the Space Politics website.)

A single radar image frame close-up view of 2014 HQ124. Credit: NASA
A single radar image frame close-up view of 2014 HQ124. Credit: NASA

The panel also noticed there is precedent for keeping and even selling samples: the visits to the Moon. Both Apollo astronauts (with the United States) and the Luna robotic missions (from the Soviet Union) returned samples of the Moon to the Earth. Some of the Apollo rocks, for example, are on display in museums. Others are stored in the NASA Lunar Sample Laboratory Facility at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

That said, extraterrestrial property rights are difficult to define. For example, the United Nations Moon Treaty (more properly known as Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies) allows samples to be removed and stored for “scientific purposes”, and during these investigations they may “also use mineral and other substances of the moon in quantities appropriate for the support of their missions.” But it also adds that “the moon and its natural resources are the common heritage of mankind.”

7 Replies to “If You Mine An Asteroid, Who Does The Property Belong To?”

  1. This issue HAS TO BE CLEARED up ASAP! But the bottom line is basically… Whoever gets ‘there’ owns whatever materials are collected and returned to Earth. AT least as far as samples are concerned. I’ll bet the UN might disagree?

    The caveat to this is, would that a probe from whatever nation finds something intrinsically VALUABLE like gold or? Then fur shore there will be a ‘cat fight’ over mining rights… wanna bet?

  2. Perhaps I’m too old school. I don’t understand why there would be a question as to who would own the fruits of their labor in regards to mining an asteroid. If an entity is capable of investing in research, development, equipment, and personnel to carry out the desired task in order to make a profit, why not? Asteroids do not belong to anybody unless one stakes a claim. We of course do it on our planet all the time. A company who mines gold, silver, or fill in your favorite mineral, owns and sells what it mines. The only difference I can think of is that one does not have to buy the asteroid! Granted it’s a very expensive venture, which is one of the reasons why it hasn’t happened yet. We have commercial space flight now. The solar systems the limit. For right now.

    1. If we are to move out into the solar system the “common heritage of all mankind” language has to be eliminated and commercial claims allowed. Only commercial interests will get humans in large quantities out of the cradle. NASA has been stuck in Low Earth Orbit since the 1970s despite a 10 digit annual budget.

    2. It’s a little more complicated than that. Possession can be a tricky subject and mineral rights and land rights in particular are very tricky, even when on Earth. Those rights tend to get granted (and enforced) by the state which controls the territory, and different states have different ways of doing so. In space, states neither claim nor control any territory, so it gets very complex.

      It’s easy to think that if you’re the first one to show up at an asteroid with your mining equipment and bring back a tonne of whatever valuable mineral, you own it and can sell it. But what if your claim is in dispute? What if you mined it first, but weren’t the first to plant a flag? What if you did plant a flag, but someone else was the first to orbit the asteroid? What if you did all of that, but someone else actually [i]discovered[/i] the asteroid in the first place from their backyard with a telescope? Even if the answers seem obvious, they’re not written down anywhere in the law of any government, which is what matters. If someone disputed your claim of ownership, and then forcefully “retrieved” the tonne of minerals you returned to Earth on the basis that they were the rightful owner, it would probably have to be settled by a court. But without a law to refer to, the court wouldn’t have much to go on.

      And because of the nature of space not being in the scope of any given territory on earth, no individual state can really settle a dispute. A Russian-sponsored oligarch might go mine an asteroid and bring it back, and then the Russian state might take a cut of the proceeds, but the US might dispute the claim of both the oligarch and the state.

      Only an international agreement can provide the basis for mining rights in the asteroid belt.

  3. It’s worth noting that the Moon Treaty mentioned in the article has been ratified by fewer than 10 states, and not one of them has a space programme. So it doesn’t make a very good precedent.

  4. There is however lots of precedent in the law of leases, including leases of mineral rights, and even international agreements on leasing mineral rights. The 1967 treaty on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, which almost everybody did sign, also includes the ‘common heritage’ language and makes states party to it responsible for the actions of their nationals off-planet. The ‘common heritage’ language is a good start on avoiding land grabs, gold rushes, piracy and even wars over mineral resources, all of which have happened on Earth in the past and we have to avoid happening again. If there were to be conflict over extraterrestrial resources it would be fought on Earth, and launch complexes are too few and too vulnerable to be put at risk. So what we need is to set up an internationally recognized licensing authority. In “The Moon, Resources Future Development and Colonization’ (John Wiley, 1999) Bonnie Cooper et al suggest modelling it on terrestrial port authorities, which sounds good to me.

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