The United States created an international stir last year when it affirmed outer space property rights in its Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act. Some space law experts questioned whether such property rights were legal under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. Others went further, calling the action potentially “dangerous” and “illegal.” Nevertheless, one year later, the march towards property right in space marches along.
Luxembourg, a small country with a long history of space ventures, recently adopted a draft law that also grants legal ownership to those that recover resources from outer space. Such a move creates the possibility of international competition for space resource recovery. The United States will now have to ensure that its nascent industry remains viable. Of course, outer space mining is not going to happen overnight. The industry has a lot of hurdles to overcome, particularly technical ones, but it is also no longer considered laughably unviable. Beyond establishing property rights, the future of the market will rest on how countries approach new space missions like resource recovery.
The United States, with its enviable commercial space market, may have assumed that it would be the dominant player in the space resource recovery game. It may still be, with companies like Planetary Resources, Deep Space Industries, and Moon Express based in America. However, the recognition of space property rights by other countries means that the United States cannot afford to be complacent. Luxembourg is becoming particularly active, partnering with Deep Space Industries to test the company’s proposed spacecraft. The small European country also purchased 49 percent of Planetary Resources’ European business in order to promote Luxembourg as a hub for space mining. The country is purportedly working with 20 companies to formalize agreements relating to space mining—a noteworthy development, given its success in anticipating demand for commercial satellite use in the 1980s. Of course, other countries may soon follow the lead.
While the United States was the first country to recognize property rights in space, it may not be the first to benefit from that policy. The United States has not yet actively engaged with the industry, and has established no framework for companies to get mining missions approved. The debate about how the United States should approach space mining regulations—if regulations are even needed—is not going to be an easy one. However, if America does not have that conversation soon, it may be leapfrogged by more nimble international competitors. That would be a poor prize for being the first to recognize property rights in space.