By Yevgeny Shrago
The revelation last week that startup Planetary Resources had secured substantial funding to mine an asteroid was met with equal parts amusement and excitement. In many ways, this development provides a lot of hope of new innovations for a global economy that increasingly appears to be stagnating. As the planet begins to seriously consider the potential of substantial resource shortages over the next century, the seemingly unlimited abundance of minerals in space promises to help us maintain inexpensive inputs and remove a potential source of pressure on human well-being. At the same time, this private foray into space raises new questions about the changes the global legal system will undergo as government actors cede space exploration to the market.
The United Nations, which is supposed to deal with these things, has promulgated various treaties and principles over the last fifty years meant to deal with how nations explore and use outer space. Unfortunately, these principles are laughably underdeveloped and pie in the sky. Article 11 of theAgreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies contains high sounding rhetoric denying that states or parties under their jurisdiction can appropriate any portion of the moon or other celestial bodies simply by placing structures or other equipment there. That’s probably fine when the concern is a space race between the United States and China, but it makes a lot less sense when it comes to private mining companies and the various other space industries that are going to spring up as the cost of getting into orbit drops and mineral shortages on Earth make space exploration a cost-effective proposition.
Imagine that space mining operations actually begin in earnest. There will presumably be asteroids that are more desirable to mine than others. Under the current regime, no one can appropriate the asteroid or even the patch of the asteroid that’s been mined. Every time a mining robot leaves, another company can swoop in and take advantage of all the work that has already been done. Without some sort of property rights system in place, the natural outcome will be less exploitation of space resources than is probably optimal for humanity, as miners are worried about free riders appropriating their work.
There are serious issues to be considered regarding which laws of property should apply in space and how they should be applied. The UN should work on setting up both a legal regime that better reflects the exigencies of commercial use of space and institutions that can support and nurture such a regime.