SPACE IS LOUSY with profits. Consider the asteroid Ryugu: It’s made of so many tons of nickel, iron, cobalt, and water, it’s worth an estimated $95 billion. Venture into deeper space and there’s even richer plunder—like Davida, an asteroid that the wanna-be space mining company Planetary Resources values at more than $100 trillion. That’s more than five times the GDP of the US.
These jaw-dropping payloads are why extraterrestrial mining is becoming an increasingly serious endeavor. Companies like Planetary Resources, backed by the likes of Googlers Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, are already launching satellites to scan for the most promising asteroids.
Space experts say some firm could be ready to launch a mission within 10 years. But are they allowed to? Of course, anyone can reach an asteroid—NASA already has. But can you own one?
Let’s start with existing space law. The big one on the books is the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. Ratified by 103 countries, including the spacefaring ones, it prohibits anyone from “appropriating” territory in space.
(There’s an even more restrictive 1979 Moon Treaty as well, but the spacegoing countries haven’t signed, so it’s probably less relevant.) The upshot, most space-law scholars agree, is that nobody can claim a celestial body for their own.
But what about just extracting resources and bringing them home? The issue hasn’t been litigated, but extraction is probably legally OK. Indeed, there’s precedent: The US brought 842 pounds of rocks back from the moon, and they’re designated as property of the US.
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