So Who Owns The Asteroids?
To mining technology experts and optimistic early investors, mining asteroids for precious metals and even water may be possible in a decade. See this special report by Lana Rowe.
In 2005, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) managed to land Hayabusa, an unmanned spacecraft, on an asteroid orbiting near earth. The agency brought back a sample of surface dust and after analysis determined that it had been on the surface of the asteroid for around 8 million years. Despite the heady adventure associated with space travel and the hope of an nearly endless supply of natural resources, Professor Frans von der Dunk of the University of Nebraska College of Law warns that there are still legal impediments, which could slow down the fast pace of discovery.
In a recent Bloomberg Law interview, Prof. von der Dunk outlined several issues that need to be addressed before asteroid mining can be safely attempted. These issues revolve around the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. Written during the Cold War, an era when far-reaching missiles were a top concern, the treaty states in Article 2 that, “Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.” Dr. Dunk states that this leaves as undetermined the ownership, and therefore responsibility and liability for, what occurs on asteroid turf.
At first glance, the treaty seems to allow private companies to have free reign of the resources, however the treaty goes on to declare, “States Parties to the Treaty shall bear international responsibility for national activities in outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, whether such activities are carried on by governmental agencies or by non-governmental entities, and for assuring that national activities are carried out in conformity with the provisions set forth in the present Treaty.” So, though no governmental or non-governmental agency can lay sovereignty or ownership to asteroids, there seems to be wiggle room for some type of frontier-type mining with first-come, first-serve as the general rule. Aside from the rather gloomier issue of who would be responsible for the shift toward earth of any mined asteroid, the subject of ownership and proprietary rights is of particular interest to companies which currently dabble in mining royalties.
Currently, all ideas are on the table as to how to solve the dilemma. This is not the first time a debate has been launched concerning the ownership of a large depository of natural resources. The standard for ownership of the seabed and its resources was decided by the United States’ unilateral move of passing its own national legislation concerning temporary land grants after a failed international attempt to give oversight to the UN. This move was thereafter adopted by other nations. As a solution for ocean bed rights, this seems tidy enough, but then you consider the stakes. Having a well spurt oil into the ocean seems a comparatively minor catastrophe when you consider the fact that mining an asteroid could change its trajectory onto earth’s path.
So, the issue of ownership and drilling rights is the first step in solving the matter before we go forward. As Prof. von der Dunk argues, unless we know who has the right to convey ownership and who has the right to drill, there is no reliability in investing for the average shareholder in these enterprises. There needs to be assurances about the liability of damage to communications satellites, firm rights of ownership once the materials land on earth, and, most importantly, a solution to that disquieting issue of mine-damaged asteroids careening toward earth. Written and submitted by: Lana Rowe (Blog) for ‘Astro Space News.’
NASA”S Office Of Planetary Protection
Planetary protection is the term given to the practice of protecting solar system bodies (i.e., planets, moons, comets, and asteroids) from contamination by Earth life, and protecting Earth from possible life forms that may be returned from other solar system bodies. Planetary protection is essential for several important reasons: to preserve our ability to study other worlds as they exist in their natural states; to avoid contamination that would obscure our ability to find life elsewhere — if it exists; and to ensure that we take prudent precautions to protect Earth’s biosphere in case it does.
International Treaties and Organizations with Cognizance of Planetary Protection Activities
The 1967 United Nations Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Bodies states that all countries party to the treaty “shall pursue studies of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, and conduct exploration of them so as to avoid their harmful contamination.” Internationally, technical aspects of planetary protection are developed through deliberations by the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR), part of the International Council of Science (ICSU), which consults with the United Nations in this area. The COSPAR Panel on Planetary Protection develops and makes recommendations on planetary protection policy to COSPAR, which may adopt them as part of the official COSPAR Planetary Protection Policy.
NASA Planetary Protection Policy
NASA maintains a planetary protection policy and administers associated procedures to ensure compliance with it. The NASA policy generally follows the COSPAR policy. NASA’s Planetary Protection Officer oversees compliance with formal implementation requirements that are assigned to each mission. In accordance with the NASA policy, requirements are based on the most current scientific information available about the target bodies and about life on Earth. The Planetary Protection Officer requests recommendations on implementation requirements for missions to a specific solar system body, or class of bodies, from internal and external advisory committees—but most notably from the Space Studies Board of the National Research Council. In recent years the Space Studies Board has provided recommendations on planetary protection requirements for Mars, Europa, and sample return missions from a variety of small solar system bodies such as moons, comets, and asteroids. These recommendations will be reassessed as new information becomes available.
Requirements for Protecting Life on Other Bodies
Planetary protection requirements for each mission and target body are determined based on the scientific advice of the Space Studies Board and on NASA or international policy guidelines. Each mission is categorized according to the type of encounter it will have (e.g., flyby, orbiter, or lander) and the nature of its destination (e.g., a planet, moon, comet, or asteroid). If the target body has the potential to provide clues about life or prebiotic chemical evolution, a spacecraft going there must meet a higher level of cleanliness, and some operating restrictions will be imposed. Spacecraft going to target bodies with the potential to support Earth life must undergo stringent cleaning and sterilization processes, and greater operating restrictions.
Mission Design and Cleanliness
The first and most important step in complying with NASA planetary protection policy is avoiding unintended encounters with solar system objects. Careful mission design and planning are essential to meeting this requirement. For example, at the end of an orbiter mission the spacecraft may be placed into a long-term orbit so that radiation and other elements of the local space environment can eliminate any Earth microbes that might be onboard. After navigation considerations are taken into account, missions must meet stringent cleanliness requirements. Spacecraft and their components must be cleaned very carefully, and sometimes sterilized. After cleaning, spacecraft are tested to ensure that cleanliness requirements have been met and can be maintained until launch.
Orbiters and Flyby Spacecraft
As noted above, requirements for such missions may include limits on the probability of impact with the target body, and orbital lifetime constraints for orbiter missions. If the probability that the spacecraft will impact the surface of its target body is small, cleanliness requirements may be reduced. However, if the spacecraft cannot meet these requirements, then constraints are placed on its total biological burden. These constraints may require decontamination procedures, the effectiveness of which is measured by a series of verification assays. Furthermore, after cleaning, procedures need to be implemented that assure prevention of recontamination. For orbiters and flyby spacecraft to target bodies of lesser biological interest, the requirements may only include an effort to minimize inadvertent impact and, should impact occur, documentation of the location and status of the final disposition of the hardware.
Landers and Rovers
For spacecraft intended to land on target bodies of biological interest, requirements include limits on the spacecraft’s biological burden. How stringent these limits are depends on the spacecraft’s planned operations and the specific target body. Landers and rovers can be designed so that only some parts are exposed to the surface of a planet. In such cases, only exposed spacecraft parts have to meet the most stringent cleanliness requirements. Sterilization of the entire spacecraft may be required for landers and rovers with life detection experiments, and for those landing in or moving to a region where terrestrial microorganisms may survive and grow, or where indigenous life may be present. For other landers and rovers, the requirements would be for decontamination and partial sterilization of the landed hardware. Source: NASA
- Keeping Germs From Colonizing Mars (davidreneke.com)
- Space Lawyers: They Exist (fastcompany.com)
- Sorry, But the Job of Planetary Protection Officer is Already Taken (motherjones.com)