With the United States signing an act allowing its citizens to mine asteroids, the race for property rights in outer space will get keener. And with a weak Outer Space Treaty, the repercussions could be scary.
By Papia Samajdar
On November 25, 2015, Barack Obama signed the US Com-mercial Space Launch Com-petitiveness Act which allows US citizens and companies to mine asteroids. What caught the attention of everyone is a provision in it for extension of property rights to US companies and citizens legalizing the “ownership” of asteroids. This means that if they can retrieve minerals, metals or resources from outer space, they can keep it.
The Act says: “Any asteroid resources ob- tained in outer space are the property of the entity that obtained them, which shall be entitled to all property rights to them, consistent with applicable federal law and existing international obligations.
A US commercial space resource utilization entity:
*Shall avoid causing harmful interference in outer space
*May bring a civil action in US district court for any action by another entity subject to US jurisdiction causing harmful interference to its operations with respect to an asteroid resource utilisation activity in outer space.”
This is one of the biggest steps in terms of extension of property rights to outer space. However, is the US allowed to extend property rights to its citizens when it’s bound by international law which universalizes outer space and celestial bodies? The new law provides US jurisdiction with respect to outer space activity if a domestic company or citizen is involved, which is in violation of the Outer Space Treaty, 1967. This international treaty, which the US is a signatory to, does not give it the right to own, obtain or transport resources.
The US justifies its law by saying that it is not against the international treaty and that it has not given sovereign rights for the celestial body, but merely extended its right to economically exploit resources affirmed by the state practices.
The Outer Space Treaty, or the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, 1967, has 104 countries as signatories. The treaty seeks to ensure peaceful activity in outer space and specifically prohibits states from parking weapons of mass destruction there. The treaty emphasizes that outer space belongs to everyone, and exploration and study would be done to benefit everyone. No one state can either claim sovereignty of jurisdiction in outer space. Article 2 of the Treaty states that “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.”
Article 4 of the Treaty leaves the supervision of outer space with the international community.
India must look into the effects of outer space activities. It should maintain that outer space property can’t be appropriated and any extraction of resources can’t happen without an international instrument, from spacefaring nations.
There was a Moon Agreement (or the Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, 1979), which was a follow-up to the Outer Space Treaty. It was an attempt to establish a regime for the use of Moon and other celestial bodies. However, it failed to muster enough support as only 16 nations were signatories to it.
Outer space activity has seen a sudden rise, thanks to technological development during the Cold War era. Currently, 11 countries have space launch capability and over 60 own and operate approximately 1,100 active satellites orbiting the Earth. In the absence of a strong regulatory instrument, outer space is already crowded. Negligence and technological breakdown has caused enough damage to satellites, without any move to clean the debris. As a result, approximately 20,000 soft ball-sized debris are floating around the Earth.
This hyper activity is harmful enough, not to mention unknown im-prints on Earth. If the US space mining law and others proceed to tamper with the pristine environment, Earth’s immediate environment could suffer damage. The im-pact of space activity is unknown as governments don’t release enough data for the public on the issue. A feasibility study to understand the fallout of these activities does not seem to have crossed the minds of these mining companies.
Too much tampering might also spoil the clues crucial for the discovery of outer space life forms and other secrets the celestial bodies might hold.
Contamination of outer space with our bacteria might also adversely affect the atmosphere and ruin our chances of discovering how life on Earth might have evolved.
Apart from the grave environmental impact of extra-terrestrial mining of resources and tampering with outer space, the US move co-uld well trigger an international race to own and exploit asteroids and other celestial bodies. The US law has set the stage for other countries to come up with their own domestic laws which will permit resource mining. Currently, with a handful of spacefaring countries, the Earth’s orbit is a crowded and dirty place. With time, the race will get faster and dirtier.
Countries such as Russia and China and even India can, in all likelihood, extend property rights of celestial bodies to their citizens without claiming sovereignty over them, just as the US mining lobby is doing.
Currently, the US accounts for 75 percent of the worldwide government funding for space and the US government or industry owns and operates roughly 40 percent of all active spacecraft in orbit. However, Russia and China follow closely.
As regards Russia, Article 2 of the Law of Russian Federation “About Space Activity” Decree No. 5663-1 permits “operations to explore and use outer space including the moon and other celestial bodies”. Article 4, however, restricts monopolistic and entrepreneurial activity, while Article 8 hints that their federal space program shall be elaborated taking into account conditions in the world space market. The US law is enough ground for Russia to develop its own space program.
India does not have a domestic law or policy with regard to outer space activity though it is a signatory to both the Outer Space Treaty and the Moon Agreement. However, it has been active in space explorations and has a number of satellites orbiting Earth. These are used for mapping, communication, def-ense purposes, etc.
The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) has already showed the world its ad-vanced technological capabilities by putting forward the Mars Mission Orbiter in one att-empt and at a very low cost in September last year. India for the first time entered the Mars orbit. Until then, ISRO was dealing mainly with launching satellites.
Though the impact of the US law is futuristic, US mining companies are already in-vesting and developing technology which will enable them to begin mining asteroids within a decade.
The US justifies the new law by saying that it is not against the international treaty and it has not given sovereign rights for the celestial body, but merely extended its right to economically exploit resources affirmed by the state practices.
In the wake of increasing outer space acti-vity, India needs to gear up and consider the repercussions of these activities. Our country and the international community should maintain that outer space property cannot be appropriated and that any extraction of resources cannot happen without a proper international instrument, which spacefaring countries should be signatories to. Also, a liability regime should be put forward.
The future when celestial bodies will be mined is not far. However, mankind should refrain from being irresponsible in outer spa-ce activity so that we don’t witness catastrophic consequences.