Can We Own Space? Buying Your Own Piece of the High Frontier

Space for Sale!


Compared to a regular human, the Earth is enormous. And compared to the Earth, the Universe is really enormous. Like, maybe infinitely enormous.

And yet, Earth is the only place humans are allowed to own. You can buy a plot of land in the city or the country, but you can’t buy land on the Moon, on Mars or on Alpha Centauri.

It’s not that someone wouldn’t be willing to sell it to you. I could point you at a few locations on the internet where someone would be glad to exchange your “Earth money” for some property rights on the Moon. But I can also point you to a series of United Nations resolutions which clearly states that outer space should be free for everyone. Not even the worst rocky outcrop of Maxwell Montes on Venus, or the bottom of Valles Marineris on Mars can be bought or sold.

However, the ability to own property is one of the drivers of the modern economy. Most people either own land, or want to own land. And if humans do finally become a space faring civilization, somebody is going to want to own the property rights to chunks of space. They’re going to want the mining rights to extract resources from asteroids and comets.

We’re going to want to know, once and for all, can I buy the Moon?

Until the space age, the question was purely hypothetical. It was like asking if you could own dragons, or secure the mining rights to dreams. Just in case those become possible, my vote to both is no.

The Sputnik spacecraft stunned the world when it was launched into orbit on Oct. 4th, 1954. Credit: NASA

But when the first satellite was placed into orbit in 1957, things became a lot less hypothetical. Once multiple nations had reached orbitable capabilities, it became clear that some rules needed to be figured out – the Outer Space Treaty.

The first version of the treaty was signed by the US, Soviet Union and the United Kingdom back in 1967. They were mostly concerned with preventing the militarization of space. You’re not allowed to put nuclear weapons into space, you’re not allowed to detonate nuclear weapons on other planets. Seriously, if you’ve got plans and they relate to nuclear weapons, just, don’t.

Can’t kill killer asteroids with nukes. Credit: Los Alamos National Lab

Over the years, almost the entire world has signed onto the Outer Space Treaty. 106 countries are parties and another 24 have signed on, but haven’t fully ratified it yet.

In addition to all those nuclear weapons rules, the United Nations agreed on several other rules. In fact, its full name is, The Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies.

Here’s the relevant language:

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.

No country can own the Moon. No country can own Jupiter. No country can own a tiny planet, off in the corner of the Andromeda Galaxy. And no citizens or companies from those countries can own any property either.

And so far, no country has tried to. Seriously, space exploration is incredibly difficult. We’ve only set foot on the Moon a couple of times, decades ago, and never returned.

But with all the recent developments, it looks like we might be getting closer to wondering if we can own dragons, or a nice acreage on Mars.

Perhaps the most interesting recent development is the creation of not one, not two, but three companies dedicated to mining resources from asteroids: Planetary Resources, Kepler Energy, and Deep Space Industries.

Just a single small asteroid could contain many useful minerals, and there could potentially be tens of billions of dollars in profit for anyone who can sink robotic mining shafts into them.

Asteroid mining concept. Credit: NASA/Denise Watt

The three different companies have their own plans on how they’re going to identify potential mining targets and extract resources, and I’m not going to go into all the details of what it would take to mine an asteroid in this video.

But according to the Outer Space Treaty, is it legal? The answer, is: probably.

The original treaty was actually pretty vague. It said that no country can claim sovereignty over a world in space, but that doesn’t mean we can’t utilize some of its resources. In fact, future missions to the Moon and Mars depend on astronauts “living off the land”, harvesting local resources like ice to make air, drinking water and rocket fuel. Or building structures out of Martian regolith.

Mining an entire asteroid for sweet sweet profit is just a difference of scale.

In order to provide some clarity, the United States passed the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015. This gave details on how space tourism should work, and described how companies might mine minerals from space. The gist of the law is, if an American citizen can get their hands on materials from an asteroid, they own it, and they’re free to sell it.

The Interplanetary Transport System blasting off. Credit: SpaceX

As you know, SpaceX is planning to colonize Mars. Well, so far, their plans include building the most powerful rocket ever built, and hurling human beings at Mars, hundreds at a time. The first mission is expected to blast off in 2024, so this is quickly becoming a practical issue.

What are the legalities of colonizing Mars? Will you own a chunk of land when you stumble out of the Interplanetary Transport Ship out on the surface of Mars?

Right now, you can imagine the surface of Mars like a research station on Antarctica. If SpaceX, an American company, builds a colony on Mars, then it’s essentially US government property. Anything that happens within that colony is under the laws of the United States.

If a group of colonists from China, for example, set out on their own, they would be building a little piece of China. And no matter what kind of facility they build, nobody within the team actually owns their homes.

If you’re out on the surface, away from a base, everything reverts to international law. Watch out for space pirates!

The space pirates were everywhere. Monday suddenly got a lot more interesting. Credit: NASA/JSC/Pat Rawlings, SAIC

Under the treaty, every facility is obliged to provide access to anyone else out there, which means that members of one facility are free to visit any other facility. You can’t lock your door and keep anyone out.

In fact, if anyone’s in trouble, you’re legally bound to do everything you can (within reason) to lend your assistance.

The bottom line is that the current Outer Space Treaty is not exactly prepared for the future reality of the colonization of Mars. As more and more people reach the Red Planet, you’d expect they’re going to want to govern themselves. We’ve seen this play out time and time again on Earth, so it won’t be surprising when the Mars colonies band together to declare their separation from Earth.

That said, as long as they’re reliant on regular supplies from Earth, they won’t be able to fully declare their independence. As long as they have interests on Earth, our planet’s governments will be able to squeeze them and maintain their dominance.

We've been dreaming about a Mars colony for a long time, as the lovely retro drawing shows. Will SpaceX finally give us one? Image: NASA
Credit: NASA

Once a Mars colony is fully self sufficient, though, which Elon Musk estimates will occur by 1 million inhabitants, Earth will have to recognize a fully independent Mars.

Space law is going to be one of the most interesting aspects of the future of space exploration. It’s really the next frontier. Concepts which were purely theoretical are becoming more and more concrete, and lawyers will finally be the heroes we always knew they could be.

If you’ve always wanted to be an astronaut, but your parents have always wanted you to be a lawyer, now’s your chance to do both. An astronaut space lawyer. I’m just saying, it’s an option.

How Private Space Companies Make Money Exploring The Final Frontier

TORONTO, CANADA – There’s a big difference in thinking between governments and the private companies that participate in space. While entities such as NASA can work on understanding basic human health or exploring the universe for the sake of a greater understanding, companies have a limitation: they need to eventually make a profit.

This was brought up in a human spaceflight discussion at the International Astronautical Congress today (Oct. 1), which included participants from agencies and companies alike. Below are some concepts for how private companies in the space world today are making their money.

“We have in space a movement towards more privatization … and also for more use of space activities in general and human space activity in the future by individual private persons,” said Johann Dietrich Worner, chairman of the executive board of DLR (Germany’s space agency), in the panel.

“You can imagine that even for the upcoming 10 to 20 to 30 years, the public funding is the basic funding for [space] activities while in other areas, we are already seeing that private money is doing its work if you look to communication and if you look to other activities, like for instance, research in space.”

But commercial spaceflight is already taking place, as some of these examples show.

Commercial crew

Would you ‘Enter the Dragon’? First look inside SpaceX Dragon V2 next generation astronaut spacecraft unveiled by CEO Elon Musk on May 29, 2014. Credit: Robert Fisher/AmericaSpace
Would you ‘Enter the Dragon’?
First look inside SpaceX Dragon V2 next generation astronaut spacecraft unveiled by CEO Elon Musk on May 29, 2014. Credit: Robert Fisher/AmericaSpace

The two successful companies in NASA’s latest round of commercial contracts — SpaceX (Dragon) and Boeing (CST-100) — are each receiving government money to develop their private space taxis. The companies are responsible for meeting certain milestones to receive funds. There is quite the element of risk involved because the commercial contracts are only given out in stages; you could be partway through developing the spacecraft and then discover you will not be awarded one for the next round. This is what happened to Sierra Nevada Corp., whose Dream Chaser concept did not receive more money in the announcement last month. The company has filed a legal challenge in response.

Private space travel

Sir Richard Branson hugs designer Burt Rutan as they are surrounded by employee's of Virgin Galactic, The SpaceShip Company and Scaled Composites watch as Virgin Galactic's SpaceShip2 streaks across the sky under rocket power, its first ever since the program began in 2005. Burt's wife Tonya Rutan is at right taking their photo. The spacecraft was dropped from its "mothership", WhiteKnight2 over the Mojave, CA area, April 29, 2013 at high altitude before firing its hybrid power motor. Virgin Galactic hopes to become the first commercial space venture to bring multiple passengers into space on a regular basis.
Sir Richard Branson hugs designer Burt Rutan, surrounded by employees of Virgin Galactic, The SpaceShip Company, and Scaled Composites, and watch as Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip2 streaks across the sky under rocket power, its first ever since the program began in 2005. Burt’s wife Tonya Rutan is at right taking their photo. The spacecraft was dropped from its “mothership,” WhiteKnight2, over the Mojave CA area on April 29, 2013, at high altitude before firing its hybrid power motor. Virgin Galactic hopes to become the first commercial space venture to bring multiple passengers into space on a regular basis.

Virgin Galactic and its founder, Richard Branson, are perhaps the most visible of the companies that are looking to bring private citizens into space — as long as they can pay $250,000 for a ride. The first flight of Virgin into space is expected in the next year. Customers must pay a deposit upfront upon registering and then the balance before they head into suborbit. In the case of Virgin, Branson has a portfolio of companies that can take on the financial risk during the startup phase, but eventually the company will look to turn a profit through the customer payments.

Asteroid mining

Artist concept of the ARKYD spacecraft by an asteroid. Credit: Planetary Resources.
Artist concept of the ARKYD spacecraft by an asteroid. Credit: Planetary Resources.

The business case for Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries, the two self-proclaimed asteroid mining companies, hasn’t fully been released yet. We assume that the companies would look to make a profit through selling whatever resources they manage to dig up on asteroids, but bear in mind it would cost quite a bit of money to get a spacecraft there and back. Meanwhile, Planetary Resources is diversifying its income somewhat by initiatives such as the Arkyd-100 telescope, which will look for asteroids from Earth orbit. They raised money for the project through crowdsourcing.

Space station research

The International Space Station in March 2009 as seen from the departing STS-119 space shuttle Discovery crew. Credit: NASA/ESA
The International Space Station in March 2009 as seen from the departing STS-119 space shuttle Discovery crew. Credit: NASA/ESA

NanoRacks is a company that has research slots available on the International Space Station that it sells to entities looking to do research in microgravity. The company has places inside the station and can also deploy small satellites through a Japanese system. While the company’s website makes it clear that they are focused on ISS utilization, officials also express an interest in doing research in geocentric orbit, the moon or even Mars.

How Canadarm Sparked A Space Artist’s Love of The Universe

OTTAWA, CANADA – A small Canadian community seems an unlikely spot for an artist now working with Mars One (those people plotting a one-way trip to Mars) and asteroid mining concept company Deep Space Industries. But that’s how Bryan Versteeg got his start in life and — despite his remoteness — found space inspiration from an iconic Canadian technology.

“In a small, isolated Canadian community, I wasn’t really exposed to space exploration at all. I had no one around me who was in the industry. The only thing I had that talked to me about Canadians in space  … was the Canadarm,” said Versteeg in a speech Nov. 15.

“So growing up as a kid I’d see this Canadian flag prominently featured on one of the most incredible industrial pieces of machinery put into space,” he added, saying one of his goals now is to “stick the Canadian flag where I can.” Flashing a picture of a futuristic Mars base sporting a flag, he said, “Why not? If this place is going to be built by anyone, it’s built by Canadians.”

Artist's conception of Mars One. Credit: Mars One/Brian Versteeg
Artist’s conception of Mars One. Credit: Mars One/Brian Versteeg

Today, Versteeg does artistic work for Deep Space Industries as well as Mars One, work that initially first reached the space community because he put information out on his website and people who were interested in colonization came to him to share ideas, he said.

“I imagine concepts, and I work with people who are trying to develop concepts and show concepts. Although most of the work is self-directed, I worked on 40 projects in the past two years,” he said.

In a sense, he feels that Mars is even easier to communicate with than the far North a few decades ago. When he was living in Inuvik (in Canada’s Northwest Territories) in the 1980s, it would take 2.5 weeks to get a reply from a letter, he said.

Versteeg delivered his remarks at the Canadian Space Society’s annual summit, held this year (Nov. 14 to 15) in Ottawa, Canada.

NASA’s Sci-Fi Vision: Robots Could Help Humanity Mine Asteroids

In a few generations of robotics, we’ll see mighty machines able to fully construct themselves and operate from the surface of asteroids — providing applications for mining, NASA researchers say in a new study.

The scientists are convinced that this type of research is not only possible, but also able to support itself financially. (Costs overruns are a notorious factor in space exploration as it pushes frontiers both literally and engineering-wise.)

“Advances in robotics and additive manufacturing have become game-changing for the prospects of space industry. It has become feasible to bootstrap a self-sustaining, self-expanding industry at reasonably low cost,” the researchers stated in a new study.

A couple of factors are pointing to this, researchers said: private industry is willing and able to get involved. Advances in technologies such as 3-D printing are making off-world work more feasible. Also, humanity’s surveys of space resources has revealed the elements needed to make rubber, plastic and alloys needed for machinery.

NASA proposes a robotic flotilla could mine nearby space rocks. They caution the technology won’t be ready tomorrow, and more surveys will need to be done of nearby asteroids to figure out where to go next. There is, however, enough progress to see building blocks, the agency stated.

An artist's conception of a space exploration vehicle approaching an asteroid. Credit: NASA
An artist’s conception of a space exploration vehicle approaching an asteroid. Credit: NASA

“Robots and machines would just make the metal and propellants for starters,” stated Phil Metzger, a senior research physicist at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, who led the study.

“The first generation of robots makes the second generation of hardware, except the comparatively lightweight electronics and motors that have to be sent up from Earth. It doesn’t matter how much the large structures weigh because you didn’t have to launch it.”

A computer model in the study showed that in six generations of robotics, these machines will be able to construct themselves and operate without any need of materials from Earth.

Artist impression of the Arkyd Interceptor, a low cost asteroid mission that enables accelerated exploration. Credit: Planetary Resources.
Artist impression of the Arkyd Interceptor, a low cost asteroid mission that enables accelerated exploration. Credit: Planetary Resources.

At least two startups would agree with the optimism: Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources.

In the past year, members of both firms have proposed asteroid mining ideas, and since then, Planetary Resources has also unveiled other projects such as a public space telescope (perhaps in a bid to diversify revenues and attract more attention.)

In early 2013, when NASA submitted its fiscal budget request for 2014, it also got in on the hubbub: the agency proposed robotically venturing out to an asteroid and bringing it back to Earth.

That’s received many questions from critics (including at least one government space committee), but NASA has argued it is feasible and a way to unite innovation across various sectors.

“Because asteroids are loaded with minerals that are rare on Earth, near-Earth asteroids and the asteroid belt could become the mining centers for remotely-operated excavators and processing machinery,” NASA stated.

Asteroid 951 Gaspra
Asteroid 951 Gaspra. Credit: NASA

“In the future, an industry could develop to send refined materials, rare metals and even free, clean energy to Earth from asteroids and other bodies.”

Check out more details of the new report in the Journal of Aerospace Engineering.

A side note, this isn’t the only NASA-funded group looking at asteroid mining. In September, NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts office offered Phase 1 funding to a Robotic Asteroid Prospector proposal.

Source: NASA