Asteroid mining: Second company announces plans. Time to stake a claim? (+video)
Deep Space Industries said Tuesday it plans to launch small prospector missions to asteroids beginning in 2015. The goal of asteroid mining is to make space exploration more affordable.
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The ability to make and pump fuel in space also could cut the cost of a mission to Mars, he adds.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Space Photos of the Day: Asteroids
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The near-term objectives DSI has set for its missions in 2015 and 2016 appear more aggressive than those Planetary Resources set for itself.
Where DSI plans to launch sample return missions beginning in 2016, Planetary Resources is focusing on two types of small but powerful space telescopes for use near Earth. One type would orbit continuously, alternating its gaze from space and the hunt for undiscovered asteroids and other cosmic objects to Earth for various remote-sensing tasks. Similar telescopes with added propulsion could be used to intercept asteroids that are discovered shortly before a close encounter with Earth. A third, more-capable class, would be sent to take the measure of distant asteroids.
For private mining enterprises to thrive in space, however, you need more than a few robotics engineers, deep-pocketed investors, an d a ride into space, some specialists say. You also need a legal framework that defines property rights in ways that give investors confidence that the stake you claimed won't get jumped, leaving you with no recourse.
Under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, for instance, no country can lay claim to another celestial body, including an asteroid. But it was silent on the issue of individual claims to a chunk of space rock.
The 1979 Moon Treaty was supposed to close that gap, notes Frans von der Dunk, a law professor at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln who specializes in space law. Among other things, the treaty bans individual or corporate ownership of any celestial object. The only organization that can claim jurisdiction must be international and governmental.
But the treaty "has remained a dead letter except for a few countries of minor space-faring status," he says. The big players want to keep their options open.
At the moment, outside of compliance with any applicable US laws, no law prevents either company from mining asteroids, Dr. von der Dunk explains. Nor is there a law to prevent anyone from landing a monster scoop next door and mining the same ice-rich deposit of rubble.
That could change as either company, or any additional entries into the moon or asteroid-mining arena, get much closer to scraping space dirt.
Indeed, the time to start crafting some form of property-rights regimes for space is now, rather than later when more capital has been invested in the mining business, von der Dunk suggests. Wait too long, and incentives to act could be thwarted by those vested interests who would prefer a more Wild West approach to mining.
The time to devise "a sensible and balanced regime" for exploiting space resources is well in advance of "the first actual activities," he says.
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