Just who owns an asteroid?
The question conjures up visions of wildcatters in space suits duking it out over a stake, laser pistols flashing. It’s the stuff of space operas. At least, it used to be. Now that several companies have announced plans to begin mining asteroids in the near future the question of property rights in space has become a serious matter for discussion. The short answer is, no one knows yet, but there are serious legal minds hard at work on it.
There is lots of value floating around in space. It has been estimated that a 1 kilometer diameter, M-tType asteroid could contain as much as 7,500 tons of platinum worth up to $150 million. Considering that many of these asteroids would also contain significant amounts of iron ore, gold, and other valuable metals, the actual value of such a rock could be much greater. With so much value free floating in our solar system’s asteroid belt, laws to define precise property law as well as laws to regulate prospecting and mining operations are necessary to prevent conflicts, both in space on here on Earth, from developing.
The 1967 Outer Space Treaty set limits on who could own what in space, specifically labeling the mMoon as off- limits to sovereign ownership. The main purpose of the treaty was as an arms control mechanism; a way to keep the United States and the Soviet Union from militarizing the moon. At that time, it was never envisioned that any entity other than sovereign nations would access space, so the terms of the treaty are woefully inadequate for the task of regulating private business in the form of asteroid mining and other activities. Since all of the language in the treaty is geared toward the behavior of sovereign states, there is a large grey area when it comes to commercial enterprise.
One of the big questions is, do asteroids count as real property or personal property? Real property is defined as all land, structures, firmly attached and integrated equipment (such as light fixtures or a well pump), anything growing on the land. Personal property is defined as corporeal personal property, including such items as animals, merchandise, and jewelry. Real Property is in simple terms, immovable property, something tied to the ground and unable to be carried away. Personal property is portable. Asteroids are a special case. They are both chunks of land and, especially in the case of the smaller ones, movable.
There is also the issue of liability. Current space law contends that nations are liable for damage done to the property of another nation. There are several layers of liability involved in asteroid mining. Although there is lots of space for competing mining corporations to set up buffers between their operations, what happens if there is an accident in space? Who will adjudicate disputes? With the possibility of towing asteroids into Earth orbit to be harvested there also exists the possibility of damage being done to objects in orbit and on the surface. How will liability be determined and compensation or justice served in the event of an accident? These are difficult questions that are only now being examined.
In asteroid mining we could be looking at the early days of a proverbial new gold rush, along with all of the lawlessness that typically with such frontier pursuits. While it is expected that the high tech companies that will be exploiting asteroids will behave, it is also prudent for the international community to set some ground rules about asteroid ownership and exploitation to avoid confusion and possible conflicts.