On November 25, President Obama signed a piece of landmark legislation: the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act. It's a space mining law.
The law sets the framework for American companies to own the resources they may extract from outer space — like minerals from asteroids, for instance. Space should be a new frontier for American capitalism, the theory goes, and the law was roundly hailed by space mining companies and congressional Republicans and Democrats as a catalyst for American technology and innovation.
But many critics — including Miami's own local space law professor — say the new law flies in the face of existing international treaties — and even sets up a possible space disaster.
"First of all, it's sort of like a land grab," said Dr. Sylvia Ospina, a renowned veteran space law expert and current adjunct professor at St. Thomas University. "And secondly ... what are the physical consequences [of asteroid mining], not only in outer space but here on Earth? We don't know if there are any germs or viruses underneath there."
The concept of space law, Ospina said, really began in the late 1950s, soon after the Soviets launched Sputnik, the first space satellite. Alarmed at the sudden possibilities and dangers presented by interstellar human travel, the United Nations established a committee for peaceful exploration. The world agreed that the new frontier should be treated better than the world at home — that space could be explored, but not extended for military use or claimed as sovereign territory.
And perhaps most important, in Article 2: "Outer space is not subject to appropriation by any means," Ospina said.
"As a space lawyer," she added, "I would suggest that the people who, unfortunately, already passed this law and agreed, should read the space treaties."
Too late for that, it seems. Some companies are already working on designs for asteroid mining tractors, as it were, although immense logistical challenges remain. And legislators who backed it are all about opening up a race for space gold.
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“The natural resources of our solar system have great potential to facilitate and support our human endeavors, both in outer space and on Earth,” said Lamar Smith, the Republican chair of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, according to the website GeekWire.
“This is the single greatest recognition of property rights in history,” added Eric Anderson, of a company called Planetary Resources—"the asteroid mining company."
But as billions of dollars are plotted to mine outer space, Ospina wonders whether government leaders and private companies are really concerned about bettering humanity as they claim. Ospina recommends they make more of an effort closer to home, where hundreds of millions of people don't have enough food and clean water.
"How about spending some of those millions here on Earth?" she said. "It might not be as sexy as mining asteroids, but I think it would be a bit more practical."