Although the idea of resource collection from outer space is still in its infancy, some policy experts are concerned about potential legal consequences and political tensions of “for-profit” space exploration. A specific point of contention is the way in which newly enacted US policies clash with international policy. Essentially, the Space Act of 2015 gives US firms the rights to own and sell natural resources they mine in space, while the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 established by the United Nations (and to which the US is a signatory) states that outer space is free for all nation states to explore and is not subject to claims of national sovereignty.
On one hand, supporters argue that the US Space Act is bold legislation that frees private spaceflight from the heavy governmental regulation – paving the way for faster scientific progress. On the other hand, the effects of exploring outer space and altering that environment have the potential to impact all of the Earth – so there needs to be some level of international regulation.
The US House Committee on Science, Space and Technology denies there is anything in the act which violates the US’s international obligations, but author and University of Kent lecturer on International Law, Gbenga Oduntan, argues that “The idea that American companies can on the basis of domestic laws alone systematically exploit mineral resources in space, despite huge environmental risks, really amounts to the audacity of greed.” But is that totally accurate?
Companies that are pushing the boundaries of space exploration and mining, like Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries, have only ever talked about prospecting asteroids – not celestial bodies with actual climates and gravitational influence over the arrangement of our solar system. Assuming that asteroids not of any significance to science or the “environment” of space are the only things being exploited, then perhaps the only real risks are political ones.
It’s hard to predict the potential consequences of for-profit space exploration this early on. But perhaps by the year 2025, we’ll have a better understanding of the risks and how to address them.