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Who owns the water on Mars and the resources in Space?

WGS001B58 Who owns the water on Mars Shutterstock 413008165
WGS001B58 Who owns the water on Mars Shutterstock 413008165

A new gold rush is set to take place beyond earth’s atmosphere as commercial adventurers seek to strip asteroids of their rare minerals and precious metals.

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson told the 2018 World Government Summit in Dubai that the first trillionaires are likely to be those who mine asteroids for minerals and water to further the exploration of the universe,

Already a number of private companies, including Planetary Resources and Deep Space Resources, are actively working out which asteroids offer the greatest potential for profits. Even now they are working to extract those resources.

Nation states are also involved in the space-mining race, with countries such as Luxembourg, Japan and the United Arab Emirates at the forefront of developments.   

But this poses some big questions. Who owns resources in space? Will space mining be a free-for-all, operating on a first-come, first-served basis? And who – if anyone – has the oversight to ensure the resources are used responsibly and for humanity’s benefit?

Rocketing to wealth

Space-mining technology already exists. The United States’ space agency NASA has launched a $1 billion, seven-year mission to map and extract materials from an asteroid called Bennu.

The Osiris-Rex spacecraft is schedule to draw alongside the asteroid this year and extract a sample of rock and soil from the asteroid surface before returning to Earth in 2023.

While scientists hope the samples will help them to better understand how the solar system began, the mission demonstrates we have the ability to remove minerals from asteroids.

The biggest prize is likely to be water – not because of any shortage on Earth, but because of its potential to be used as fuel to continue the exploration of space for ships outside our atmosphere.

Water can be used to make hydrogen to fuel spaceships, as well providing drinking water for crews, while the oxygen in H20 can be used to make air for them to breathe. 

This would be a game-changer for space exploration. It would allow spaceships to refuel in space and to travel significantly further.

Many asteroids are thought to be rich in minerals, including gold, platinum, aluminium, nickel and titanium. These could either be used as construction materials for the colonization of space or brought back to Earth.

Celestial property rights

Existing space regulation has previously been based around the UN Outer Space Treaty, created in 1967 during the cold war and the space race between the former Soviet Union and the US.

This treaty forbids any country from claiming sovereignty over space bodies but does not cover the resources contained in celestial bodies. Similarly, the Moon agreement of 1979 does not explicitly prevent the exploitation of lunar resources.

However, there has been little appetite or political movement to update the treaty to reflect the reality of 21st century space exploration.

In the absence of sufficient regulation from the UN, two countries have created their own legal framework to encourage space mining. 

First Barack Obama, the former US president, successfully passed a law called The US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act in 2015. This allows American firms or authorities to own the resources they mine in space.  

“This bill will unite law with innovation, allowing the next generation of pioneers to experiment, learn and succeed without being constrained by premature regulatory action,” said Kevin McCarthy, a Republican congressman, discussing the bill. 

The move was welcomed by would-be space miners. Planetary Resources called it the “single greatest recognition of property rights in history”. 

However, there are doubts about how applicable a law made by one country can be when applied to the vastness of space and the rights of other states or non-US companies over the resources it holds.

Luxembourg has also created its own legal space-mining framework, granting ownership to commercial companies once resources have been extracted.

The small country is actively promoting international cooperation and making bilateral agreements with countries such as Japan to work jointly within the confines of an agreed set of rules.

While countries operate in their own interests, an independent group – known as the Hague Space Resources Governance Working Group – is also proposing a set of building blocks that could eventually lead to an international framework that governs space resources. 

Space dust

Yet for now there is significant concern about the plundering of space and the environmental effects of altering it.

The more activity there is, the more the pristine conditions of space will become irrevocably changed, hindering potentially important scientific investigations. 

Space mining could also contaminate celestial bodies with microbes from Earth. It may also produce clouds of asteroid dust or loose stones, which in turn could pose a hazard to satellite operations.

But progress and innovation are unlikely to be stopped. An increasing number of countries and pioneering companies are laying out a vision to colonize Mars. Such plans are heavily dependent on the ability to use space resources to build and to survive among the stars.

More governance and regulation are essential if this is to happen in ways that are beneficial to mankind and our universal environment.

If the first trillionaires are to make their fortunes by mining asteroids, someone needs to ensure those profits are not being made at the expense of everyone else.