Asteroid mining could be against the law

Leave it to lawyers to ruin the party. Just a week after James Cameron and Google announced their plans to extract water and precious metals from nearby asteroids comes a warning from a space law expert who says the paperwork isn't quite done yet. We need to improve the legal framework, he says, before we start drilling rocks in space.

In a press release issued by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, space law expert Frans von der Dunk warned that the applicable legal systems, both in terms of U.S. and international law, must be improved and expanded upon before any space-mined products are brought back to Earth and sold.

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?"

Von der Dunk cites examples in deep seabed mining agreements as a potential template for space. Ultimately, however, he feels that, "the relevant players should get their legal act together, both internationally and nationally," before they start prospecting up there.

Press release. Image via Gunnar Assmy/Shutterstock