U.S. space entrepreneurs' announced venture to launch robotic prospectors into space in hopes of extracting water and precious metals from asteroids generated its share of excitement this week -- but it comes amid a vague legal landscape that could complicate their plans, an international space law expert said.
The applicable legal system, both in terms of U.S. and international law, must be improved and expanded before any space-mined products are brought back to Earth to market sell, said Frans von der Dunk, professor of space law at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and an international expert in the field.
"Neither the pubic interests, ranging from security, safety and the environment to protecting Neil Armstrong's footsteps, nor the interests of the company in securing its investments are properly protected," he said. "Consequently, there is no legal certainty that those activities would not become seriously challenged."
Just recently, plans were unveiled for Planetary Resources Inc., a company founded by Peter Diamandis and Eric Anderson and financed by Google co-founder and CEO Larry Page and chairman Eric Schmidt. Planetary Resources expects to launch robotic prospectors within two years. The firm hopes to begin extracting water and precious metals from asteroids within the next decade.
If those daring plans succeed, von der Dunk said, it would create its fair share of confusion about mining rights in space -- from who owns what to how business interests beyond Earth's orbit would be specifically protected.
He cited the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which forms the basis of international space law and to which all space-faring nations are a party. The treaty says that outer space constitutes a "global commons." This means that extraterrestrial bodies can never be part of one country such as the United States, which therefore means that U.S. laws to protect public or private business interests likely cannot be applied.
The problem, von der Dunk said, is that specific international legal parameters have not been sufficiently established to protect legitimate public or private concerns beyond very general, vague considerations.
"This prompts several questions: What rights of protection would the mining company have against others wishing to 'intrude,' given that a global commons is in a principled fashion open to everyone?" Von der Dunk said. "And, who is going to be held liable -- and to what extent -- when mining activities cause damage to other space activities or are harmed by them?"
A possible legal solution may be rooted in a comparable legal scenario in how different countries have dealt with deep seabed mining, he said.
Von der Dunk said the United States could ensure that in its license to be granted to any prospective U.S. space-mining operator those public parameters would be sufficiently protected, as it has done with seabed mining.
The United States has licensed national companies to mine seabeds, which are also outside of individual national jurisdictions, but the question of international acceptance would remain without a more detailed international framework.
The legal issues are relevant and imminent, von der Dunk said. The space entrepreneurs showed how just how relevant and imminent when they announced their plans.
"If both Planetary Resources and the public at large can benefit from these plans, if legal certainty should accompany the audacity of the business plan, then the relevant players should get their legal act together, both internationally and nationally," he said.
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