Boldly going where no lawmaker has gone before, the US House of Representatives has passed a 'Space Act' that essentially says: whoever first grabs resources in space, gets to keep them. The Act does not mention that other nations might disagree.
In full, the act is called the Space Resource Exploration and Utilization Act of 2015. It states, among other things: Any asteroid resources obtained in outer space are the property of the entity that obtained such resources, which shall be entitled to all property rights thereto, consistent with applicable provisions of Federal law.
'The scope of this act is uncertain,' says Tanja Masson, professor of Space Law at Leiden University in the Netherlands. 'In international space law it is prohibited to take possession of any territory. But the legal status of extraction of resources is not clear.'
In other words, when digging up precious metals on some asteroid, you are certainly taking possession of something, but afterwards the celestial body itself will still be there (most of it anyway). You can claim that you haven't claimed that space object to be yours, so you didn't break international space law.
The Space Act has been lobbied for by high risk startup space companies in the US like Planetary Resources, Deep Space Industries and Bigelow Aerospace. They want to do business in space like mining and tourism, and want to protect their investments. They need a legal framework to make sure they don't run into legal problems once they've solved all the technical ones.
Space law expert Tanja Masson isn't sure the Space Act is sufficient. 'Space lawyers are writing letters to Congress as we speak, to explain that this doesn't serve international co-operation. It prevents conflict between American companies in space but not if a Chinese one turns up. This should be resolved on the level of the United Nations, like has been done in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.' This treaty, UNCLOS for short, governs things like deep sea mining.
But, adds Masson, the United States isn't party to this treaty, for one thing because in it, the concept of 'common heritage of mankind' plays a key role. In the Land of the Free they don't like that idea very much - finders are keepers, you know. Same thing with the Moon Agreement, which the US wouldn't sign either. 'Maybe it was not a very good idea to have the 'common heritage' wording in that treaty as well,' says Masson. She is now helping organize a working group of stakeholders (countries, companies, scientists etc.) which in the next two years or so will formulate building blocks for a code of conduct to govern commercial space exploration. The group will be hosted by Leiden University and chaired by a representative of the Dutch Foreign Ministry.
'What we need is so-called soft law, rules that states will work with if they find it sufficiently urgent to do so. Then such guidelines will trickle down into binding national law. What we have to do is facilitate that process.'
Meanwhile, America's Space Act is heading to the Senate, which must vote on it before the President can sign the bill into full-blown law.
Herbert Blankesteijn is a technology journalist from the Netherlands who has written for many prominent Dutch newspapers. He presented and directed television and radio programmes and has 10 books to his name. Herbert is interested in nascent fields such as 3D printing, drones, robotics and the private space business.