Congress says it's time to start mining the solar system

Congress has approved a bill to regulate space commerce and – for the first time – space mining.

Bigelow Aerospace/AP
In this artist's rendering released by Bigelow Aerospace, a model of the Genesis I spacecraft is shown, a proposed inflatable commercial space station. Congress has just passed a law that would regulate such ventures.

Cue the "Jetsons" references: the commercialized, private sector space industry has taken one giant step forward.  

Congress has passed a bill aimed at creating a high-tech modern economy in space, creating a complete overhaul of what was seen as outdated, patchy legislation that was hindering the business world's efforts. 

The bill is now en route to the desk of President Obama, who is expected to sign it. So on a practical level, the next obstacle toward implementing a law such as this will lie in the private sector itself. Are private companies actually ready to establish commercial routes in our solar system, and do they possess the technology needed to make the plan a reality?

Companies are on track for passenger space travel by 2017, said Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, a Washington-based organization promoting commercial human spaceflight. It will "be here before you know it," Mr. Stallmer told The Christian Science Monitor. Companies that are approved and actively trying to develop "space taxis" include Boeing and SpaceX. 

Boeing is already constructing a tower for its Starliner commercial crew program in Florida, according to a NASA press release. 

One the space resource side, a company dedicated to mining asteroids called Planetary Resources received NASA grants in July to develop two new designs, including a hyperspectral imager and a propulsion system that utilizes 3D printing, according to a press release.

The bill, named the Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship Act of 2015 or SPACE Act, is looking to regulate all of this, calling for the Office of Science and Technology Policy to assess the current and proposed business ventures in space and find a way to regulate them, to be submitted back to Congress. It even includes a section on "space traffic management." 

The bill clarifies that the International Space Station has been extended to 2024 and that NASA should continue independently of the new regulations, the Orlando Sentinel reported. The bill does not say, however, if the government-owned space projects could petition for an HOV lane, just in case "orbital traffic" picks up.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D) of Florida, who helped write the bill along with Rep. Bill Posey and Sen. Marco Rubio, both Republicans from Florida, Sen. Patty Murray (D) of Washington, and Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas, said the plan can revitalize industries a bit closer to home.

"Once-deserted launch pads at the Kennedy Space Center are already coming back to life, and with the passage of this bill, we could soon see even more companies making their way to the Cape (Canaveral)," Senator Nelson told the Sentinel. 

The passage of the SPACE Act itself has the potential to jumpstart innovation. The OSIRIS-REx, an asteroid-study-and-sample-return-mission project commissioned by NASA and awarded to Lockheed Martin, took years to get approval but only months to build, said Erin Morton from the University of Arizona, which is leading the investigation for a project with NASA. 

"It went pretty quickly once we were able to start," Ms. Morton tells The Christian Science Monitor in an interview.

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