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How will US regulate private space travel?

US officials are close to approving the first commercial space flight, raising questions about how future flights will be regulated.

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    A total lunar eclipse in April 2014. US officials will likely approve the first commercial space flight to the moon soon.
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US officials are close to approving the first commercial space mission, establishing a precedent for other companies eager to send flights outside of Earth's orbit.

Moon Express, a startup from Cape Canaveral, Fl., is near receiving "mission approval" from the Federal Aviation Administration, allowing it to fly its 20-pound package of scientific hardware to the moon in 2017, The Wall Street Journal reported Sunday. Approval could come in the next few weeks, according to the Journal.

Other companies are closely monitoring the details of the approval, as it will likely establish how commercial space travel is regulated. Any approval, though, also raises questions about how closely governments should regulate space flight to protect those on the ground, as well as preserve the heavenly world from commercial exploitation.

The FAA regulates US rocket launches and is responsible for payload reviews. Internationally, the United States and other countries are operating under decades-old treaties, as the Journal reports:

[They] are responsible for 'continuing supervision' of both government and commercial payloads. Such responsibilities are largely formalities when they focus on satellites headed for typical orbits around the Earth, or spacecraft controlled by the Pentagon, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration or other federal entities. So far, the government has sent probes to the Moon, Mars and other planets.

Mars Express's is more complex, continues the Journal.

The new procedure features a more detailed, government-wide review of what such payloads include, and whether their contents or expected trajectories pose contamination or other threats prohibited by treaty provisions. According to the [Federal Aviation Administration], a company such as Moon Express 'may voluntarily request an FAA review of its payload' to determine if it poses 'any significant public safety, national security, or foreign policy concerns.'

And though Moon Express's payload is light, it's dreams aren't.

"We believe it's critical for humanity to become a multi-world species and that our sister world, the Moon, is an eighth continent holding vast resources than can help us enrich and secure our future," writes Moon Express, on its website. The company would like to explore the moon's natural resources to better understand the elements in space, allowing mankind to travel deep into space.

Moon Express is one of more than a dozen commercial enterprises in a competition to reach the moon first. Under the Google Lunar X Prize, the first privately funded team to land a robotic craft on the moon, move the lander 1,650 feet, and beam a video and photos back to Earth by the end of 2017 will win the $20 million grand prize, Space.com reported last fall. The second team to accomplish this will receive $5 million. Another $5 million is set aside for other milestones, bringing the total purse to $30 million.

Space IL, an Israeli company, signed a contract to launch its robotic lunar lander to the moon. It signed the contract in October, just a week after Moon Express. A third company, Astrobotic, signed a contract with SpaceX in 2011. 

As the race to space is underway, some worry about space mining and resource ownership. Critics worried when Luxembourg signed an agreement to mine asteroids with the private US-based Deep Space Industries (DSI) space exploration company and the Luxembourg banking institution Société Nationale de Crédit et d’Investissement (SNCI).

"Some argue that Luxembourg's efforts to mine from [near-Earth objects] violate international law, including the United Nations' Outer Space Treaty," wrote the Monitor's Ben Thompson. "The US, for example, already signed into law rules that allow for the 'commercial exploration for and commercial recovery of space resources' from asteroids and other objects, while still prohibiting state sovereignty of space objects."

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