It’s official. On Nov. 18, Congress passed the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, which says private entities can “own” space assets such as asteroids. H.R. 2262, also called the SPACE Act of 2015, also protects private spaceflight from government oversight for the next decade.
It comes at a pivotal time in our space exploration efforts, and it's a boost for anyone with galactic entrepreneurial spirit.
The modern space race is populated by powerful businesspeople with companies specializing in space tourism, commercial space flight and asteroid mining. To quote Douglas Adams, “Space is big. Really big.” It turns out that it’s also really big business.
PHOTO BREAK: 8 asteroids in our solar system
SpaceX and Virgin Galactic are the most well-known companies in the burgeoning space market. SpaceX already delivers goods to the International Space Station, and Virgin Galactic has plans to explore the space tourism market.
However, there is another branch of the space economy — companies like asteroid-mining venture Planetary Resources that seek to mine near-Earth objects for valuable resources ranging from metals to water. Mining precious metals is a no-brainer, but it’s not even the most interesting facet of asteroid mining. The applications of mining frozen water (or hydrated minerals) are numerous and lucrative. Why? Because water provides hydrogen, a key ingredient in rocket fuel.
In a video, Chris Lewicki, president and chief asteroid miner at Planetary Resources, explains how important fuel is to space travel and the satellite industry. He says, “Currently, rocket fuel in space is more valuable, pound for pound, than gold here on Earth.” He notes that one gallon of fuel costs a satellite operator $180,000. Lewicki explains that Planetary Resources seeks to provide “resources in space, for space.” Asteroid mining could truly be an interstellar game changer.
Because these new space industries and the space economy are the products of quickly advancing technologies, the legal nature of their operations had to be addressed. Until recently, there was not much legislation involving space economics and ownership of objects in space where private citizens were concerned.
You too can own an asteroid
H.R. 2262, which is expected to be signed into law by President Obama, stipulates how entities can own space assets. If you’re keen on galactic legalese, you can check out the entire bill here. One particularly interesting section in Chapter 513 titled Space Resource Commercial Exploration and Utilization reads, "A United States citizen engaged in commercial recovery of an asteroid resource or a space resource under this chapter shall be entitled to any asteroid resource or space resource obtained, including to possess, own, transport, use, and sell the asteroid resource or space resource obtained in accordance with applicable law, including the international obligations of the United States." There you have it. It’s finder’s keepers, even in outer space.
There's already international legislation regarding space travel and ownership of objects in space. The United Nations Outer Space Treaty of 1967 prevents ownership of the moon for example. It also offers protections against detrimental activities. It’s the reason why the current rovers aren’t allowed to investigate water on Mars for fear of contamination. We’ve been seeing these new developments in the exploration and monetization of space coming for decades, but new legal safeguards were required.
The passing of the measure with bipartisan support is seen as an economically sound, pro-business move. Asteroid mining companies are naturally pleased. Eric Anderson of Planetary Resources praised Congress, saying, "Many years from now, we will view this pivotal moment in time as a major step toward humanity becoming a multi-planetary species. This legislation establishes the same supportive framework that created the great economies of history, and it will foster the sustained development of space."
It turns out that the final frontier is also the new business frontier.