Space tourism is slowly but steadily becoming a reality. The ultimate goal of its proponents – whose ranks include Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos – is to put a permanent human presence on another planet.
For the time being, they will settle for landing on one of the many near-Earth asteroids orbiting our home planet. Some of these asteroids come much closer to Earth than the Moon and may contain valuable resources.
Musk's SpaceX first launched its Falcon Heavy in February 2018. The new heavy launch vehicle boasts the biggest payload capacity of any operational rocket and is partially reusable.
Powerful and semi-reusable rockets could make launches much cheaper and more common. Those resource-rich asteroids could eventually be visited by space prospectors riding such rockets. (Related: A “luxury space hotel” will be open for business in just a few years.)
Experts have claimed that space mining could become a trillion-dollar industry. NASA has determined that the asteroid belt contains enough mineral wealth to turn everyone on Earth into multi-billionaires.
The acquisition, ownership, and use of space resources will lead to very prickly legal issues, warned Ian Christensen of the space think tank Secure World Foundation. He brought up how laws governing space are very ambiguous and generalized.
For example, the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 is the most comprehensive example of existing space laws. However, the United Nations-sponsored legal document still causes confusion among countries.
Christensen said there are gaps in the Outer Space Treaty and other space laws. Therefore, existing laws will need clarification before they can be effectively cited and enforced.
Rebecca Keller from the political risk consulting firm Stratfor is of the same mind as Christensen. She said the laws governing the use of space resources is vague and open to interpretation. Governments and legal experts are still wrangling over the right way to use and own those resources.
Furthermore, there is no single, specialized authority in charge of deciding who will get to keep a particular space resource. If someone wants to do something in space, that person needs to get a license from a national government. The job of regulating space activities, therefore, falls upon the country that houses the space company conducting those activities.
Space might appear to be empty, but it is getting increasingly crowded from all the satellites, suborbital vehicles, and spacecraft. As more and more private companies try to get into space, national governments might be forced to limit and manage the growth of these private interests.
"Legislation lags behind technology, almost every time," Keller remarked. She suggested that national governments should come to an accord where everyone involved in space activities can share their side of the story.
Christensen believes space mining would start out as a relationship between the private sector and a national government. This is imposed by technological and logistic limitations on space travel and exploration.
However, a space mining industry that has acquired financial stability and independent launch capability might no longer need the assistance of a partner government.
The dream of a private space mining industry will take a while to realize. The initial batch of resources extracted from early mines will need to be spent on building additional infrastructure.
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