United States Senate votes to legalize space mining
After much delay, an important space bill has finally passed in the United States Senate. The Space Act of 2015 would do a lot of things to encourage the private space industry, including extending the "learning period" wherein fledgling spaceflight companies can operate without too much government oversight.
It would also give companies the rights to the resources they might one day extract from asteroids, such as platinum and water (which, believe it or not, is a valuable resource in space). The bill has just passed in the Senate with unanimous approval and a few amendments. Now it will be sent back to the House of Representatives, which is expected to approve the changes, and then on to President Obama.
Although the bill hasn't officially been signed into law yet, Planetary Resources, one such company that hopes to extract resources from asteroids, issued an effusive letter thanking the Congressmen who supported the bill.
"Many years from now, we will view this pivotal moment in time as a major step toward humanity becoming a multi-planetary species," said Planetary Resources Co-Chairman Eric Anderson in the press release. "This legislation establishes the same supportive framework that created the great economies of history, and it will foster the sustained development of space."
At the moment it's not clear whether space mining is legal. Although there's nothing expressly forbidding asteroid mining by private companies, the Outer Space Treaty declares that no nation can own property in space. The wording of the treaty is vague enough that companies want to ensure they'll own the resources they mine from asteroids before investing millions or billions of dollars trying to extract them.
The bill would make those property rights official, at least under U.S. law. Although companies can't own the asteroids themselves, the current version reads:
“A United States citizen engaged in commercial recovery of an asteroid resource or a space resource under this chapter shall be entitled to any asteroid resource or space resource obtained, including to possess, own, transport, use, and sell the asteroid resource or space resource obtained in accordance with applicable law, including the international obligations of the United States."
An earlier version passed in the House in May. Since then, the Senate amended it with a few interesting changes. For one, by adding the word "abiotic" to the definition of "space resources," they specify that living things are not considered a resource.
The term ‘space resource’ means an abiotic resource in situ in outer space. In other words, companies can't own any potential aliens they might find out there.