The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee announced on Tuesday the passage of a bill H.R.2262 – SPACE Act of 2015 designed to facilitate commercial space. The bill has a number of provisions for that purpose, including extending the “learning period” during which the government would be restricted from imposing regulations on the commercial launch industry to September 2023. The most interesting and potentially far-reaching provision concerned property rights for companies proposing to mine asteroids for their resources. In essence, the bill confirms that private companies own what they mine. The bill is a compromise between previous Senate and House versions.
The exact wording of the language reads, “Any asteroid resources obtained in outer space are the property of the entity that obtained them, which shall be entitled to all property rights to them, consistent with applicable federal law and existing international obligations.”
The language that defines property rights is designed to get around the provision of the Outer Space Treaty that prohibits countries from establishing sovereign claims on celestial bodies. Traditionally, such claims have been the basis of law defending property rights. The bill’s language does not allow private companies to “own” asteroids they mine, but does defend their right to own material they mine from it. Commercial space mining companies are enjoined from interfering with the activities of other entities but are given the right to sue such entities in federal court if they are interfered with.
The legal precedence was set during the Apollo moon landings. The lunar astronauts collected a great amount of soil and rock samples from the moon, which remains the property of the United States. The same principle could be extended to private companies mining platinum group metals, rare earths, and ice for profit.
Planetary Resources, a company that proposes to mine asteroids, is naturally pleased with the bill’s language. “This legislation creates a pro-growth environment for the development of the commercial space industry by encouraging private sector investment and ensuring a more stable and predictable regulatory regime. This law is important for the industry and is integral to protecting and supporting U.S. interests as the commercial space sector continues to expand.”
The bill is expected to pass the House next week and then be signed into law by President Obama. It represents a rare example of agreement between Republicans and Democrats.