The US Space Act - Pros and Cons

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.


Using Gold & Silver to Make Better Touchscreens

Touchscreen technology works by using nano-scale electrodes on the surface of the screen to receive input from a user's fingers. Currently, more than 90% of touchscreen electrodes are made with indium tin oxide (ITO). While ITO is good to use because of its high transparency and well-researched production methods, it has drawbacks - including moderate conductivity and high cost. However, a team of researchers from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich has developed a new manufacturing method that uses gold and silver to create touchscreen electrodes that perform better and are more cost effective than ITO electrodes.
   
The research team used a 3D printing process called "NanoDrip," which was developed about three years prior by the head of the research team, Dimos Poulikakos. NanoDrip is a form of electrohydrodynamic ink-jet printing. Basically, it works by using an "ink" made up of gold or silver nanoparticles held in a solvent. The ink is dispersed in tiny droplets with the aid of an electrical field. After dispersal, the solvent evaporates, creating a solid structure of precious metal.

Gold and silver are already used in many types of electronics, but they've never been useful for touchscreen technology until now. Unlike ITO, gold and silver are not transparent - which would be necessary to see what the screen is projecting. But with NanoDrip, the electrodes are printed extremely small - between 80 and 500 nanometers thick. According to the researchers, this creates touchscreen electrodes that have a higher conductivity and are more transparent than those made of indium tin oxide.

The next challenge for the team is to adapt NanoDrip to industrial-scale production. Since it provides many cost and performance advantages, "gold touchscreens" may become a reality very soon.

Asteroid Miners (in the US) can Own what they Find in Space

In 1963, the United Nations passed the Outer Space Treaty (OST), which states that outer space is free for all nation states to explore and is not subject to claims of national sovereignty – in other words, space resources could not be owned or sold.
   
However, the industry of commercial space travel has grown a lot since the sixties - and the idea of collecting and selling resources from space is gradually becoming a reality. With that in mind, the U.S. Senate took advantage of the door opened by the Space Resource Exploration and Utilization Act of 2015 and passed the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (H.R.2262) in late 2015.

The bill states that “A United States citizen engaged in commercial recovery of an asteroid resource or a space resource under this chapter shall be entitled to any asteroid resource or space resource obtained, including to possess, own, transport, use, and sell the asteroid resource or space resource obtained in accordance with applicable law, including the international obligations of the United States.” In other words, companies can bring back resources from space without legal ramifications. The bill also has other key provisions that:

  • Extend the operation of the International Space Station until at least 2024
  • Extend the regulatory learning period for the commercial space sector through September 30, 2023 (after that, the Department of Transportation takes to a regulatory approach to the industry)
  • Extends the Indemnification for Commercial Launches through September 30, 2025
  • Identifies appropriate oversight for the commercial development of space (the Office of Science and Technology Policy, in consultation with the Department of Transportation, Secretary of State, NASA and other relevant Federal agencies)

With this groundwork laid out, we may start seeing successful asteroid mining operations in the near future.