New bill in Congress could help launch a gold rush in space

Asteroid mining could capture trillions of dollars worth of rare minerals. But who owns material mined from asteroids? A bill in Congress tries to solve this issue.

Jonathan Alcorn / Reuters
Meteorites sit on a display table at the Museum of Flying in Santa Monica, Calif., Jan. 22, where Deep Space Industries announced plans for the world's first fleet of commercial asteroid-prospecting spacecraft

A new measure in Congress would help pump money into a fledgling industry that says it could soon mine rare resources from where they are plentiful – asteroids – and form the building blocks of a space economy.

The lack of clarity regarding property rights to minerals mined from asteroids has made it hard for the companies developing the space mining technology to get financing from investors. The bill, which passed the House in May, would change their prospects by requiring the president to assign a federal agency to oversee the industry and grant property rights to companies for the materials extracted in outer space.

“We like to believe it is the first time there will be social license to develop the space frontier,” says Sagi Kfir, legal counsel for Deep Space Industries, one of two asteroid-mining companies in the United States. “This is a very big deal – this is as big as it gets."

The chunks of rock flying through space contain water and resources valuable for sale earth, such as gold, iron, nickel, and cobalt. They also contain plentiful platinum-group metals, which are used in an estimated 1 in 4 industrial goods on Earth, according to Planetary Resources, the other US asteroid-mining company.

In addition to getting access to more rare minerals, a priority for the companies is to sustain the expansion of human life off of earth, which they believe is inevitable.

“That’s the importance of this piece of legislation: it opens up the possibility to look out toward space,” says Mr. Kfir. “It’s like it’s 1491 and someone in Amsterdam is saying, ‘Do you really think that there’s something beyond the edge of the ocean that we can see?’ "

Some observers say more work will be necessary because the US is not the only country interested in space. “There does need to be some international component because outer space is governed by international law and there is a treaty regime in place and the US is bound by the obligations of the outer space treaty so an international aspect would be appropriate,” says Joanne Irene Gabrynowicz, space law professor at the University of Mississippi School of Law and editor in chief emerita of the Journal of Space Law.

Meagan Crawford, director of public relations and communications for Deep Space Industries, agreed that international cooperation will have to occur in addition to building a regulatory framework at home.

“It’s a great first step but not the only,” she says. “Because space doesn’t belong to the US. It belongs to the whole world. So it’s a great way to get the international community talking about it.”

The mineral value of a single asteroid can range from the millions to trillions of dollars, according to Asterank, a database of more than 600,000 asteroids created by Space Resources, another asteroid mining company backed by Google co-founder and chief executive Larry Page and Google chairman Eric Schmidt. But bringing back more platinum than the Earth can yield in an entire year would crash the market, Ms. Crawford says. Deep Space Industries does not plan to sell space resources on Earth for 25 to 30 years, she says, because it costs too much to make it economically viable.

“It didn’t pass the test for me for a lot of years,” says Molly Macauley, vice president for research and senior fellow at Resources for the Future in Washington. “I really changed my way of thinking in part because these wealthy entrepreneurs are interested and there are a lot of commodities on asteroids that we could use, especially in space. It wouldn’t make any sense at all to bring water back from space. But if you’re going to use it in space then it makes sense.”

Water from asteroids can not only sustain astronauts, but be divided into gas and methane for use as fuel. Customers needing the resources in space could include public space agencies, such as NASA, or companies with plans for long-term human settlements, such as Elon Musk’s private rocket firm SpaceX.

“You can derive all the material to develop reliable space infrastructure in space and a space economy by space resources,” Kfir says. “In other words, New York City wasn’t built because they brought a bunch of concrete on the Mayflower.”

Kfir also says space development could solve environmental issues that earth faces. For instance, solar satellites could provide renewable, unlimited energy by directing sun energy to earth.

“You need space resources in order to develop that because you can’t lift it from a rocket – it’s just too expensive,” he says.

The House passed the property rights bill, introduced by Rep. Bill Posey (R-Florida), on May 21. It now awaits Senate action.

The space mining bill is not without detractors.

One of them, Rep. Alan Grayson, (D-Florida) who voted against the bill, says it did not appropriately address the issues of passenger safety and corporate responsibility.

“Specifically, this bill essentially would require passengers on commercial space flights to sign away their legal right to sue if they are injured,” Mr. Grayson says in a statement. “It would provide virtual immunity to the commercial space industry, and prohibit Americans injured due to corporate malfeasance or carelessness from securing adequate redress for their injuries.”

Other congressmen oppose it because they have NASA facilities in their districts and have said it would take away part of NASA’s mission.

Crawford says they plan to harvest materials in prospecting missions within five years. They would have the ability to sell water for human habitation and fuel by 10 years, and to begin building colonies from space materials in 20 to 25 years.

“As for space pirates, I’m sure there will be space pirates,” Kfir says. “We have to give Han Solo something to do.”

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