The US senate just passed some legislation that will make space mining more attractive to private companies. Or at least it will if other countries follow suit. The legislation, called the Space Resource Exploration and Utilization Act of 2015 still has to pass one more round in the American congress and then approval by US president Obama in order to become law. Among its most important features, it will give companies the rights to the material they mine from asteroids, though the companies could not actually own an asteroid. That’s similar to the model that mining companies use on Earth—they may not actually own the land, but their mining rights mean they own the resources they extract from that land. Private companies like Planetary Resources are already cheering this latest news. Why not? It’s not like any government can afford to get into space mining on its own.

Mind you, the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 says, among other things, “No one nation may claim ownership of outer space or any celestial body.” So it would be a bit questionable for the US to unilaterally grant companies mining rights to celestial bodies that the United States cannot, by treaty, own. That part of the new legislation will be meaningless unless other countries agree to it. Fortunately, those who drafted the bill were careful to make clear that it does not mean the US is claiming sovereignty over any celestial body by granting such rights.

Will we want space mining companies to be like the big mining companies on Earth? Doesn’t it kind of rankle to think of wealthy companies and individuals being given special rights to something that is no more theirs than it is ours? A parallel on Earth would be companies mining on government land—land ostensibly owned by all citizens, including its resources. Yet only the mining companies’ shareholders profit, not citizens (except for the minimal taxes that are collected on any surface buildings). That model came from a time when we couldn’t imagine anyone wanting the patches of distant wilderness where mining companies set up their operations, and we didn’t worry about the places we lived being affected by anything such companies did so far away. But with large scale pollution we’ve discovered that Earth isn’t such a big planet after all. The concept of companies being responsible to remediate land they’ve torn up and polluted is a pretty recent development, and I don’t expect any early space legislation will force businesses to tidy up an asteroid and put it back the way they found it once they’ve extracted all of the metals or water. Who would care? For now.

Mining operations in space will have to be largely self-policing, not only regarding their industrial practices or pollution, but also in the way they treat labourers. Just as governments can’t afford to build and operate mining facilities in space, they can’t afford a constant police or military presence either. And anyone who thinks a phone call will bring the cavalry swooping in within a day or two has never studied physics. So we may be allowing private corporations to set up their own fiefdoms without much prospect of serious oversight. I’m reminded of any number of movie westerns with powerful landowners and downtrodden ranch folk!

Unlike a parcel of land on Earth, where a company’s pollution or damming of a river might cause serious harm elsewhere, an artificially-controlled asteroid or any broken-off parts could become the ultimate planet-killing weapon. It’s not easy to see who should be entrusted with that capability. And that same potential risk means that asteroid mining might not be practical for actually providing resources for those of us on the surface of the Earth. It wouldn’t be especially costly or difficult to sling blobs of ore or metals back to the home planet, but the potential consequences of a mistake are so horrific, who could ever afford the insurance coverage? It doesn’t bear thinking about what could be done with such facilities in the hands of maltreated workers, rioting prisoners, terrorists, megalomaniacs, or any other “bad guys” you could name.

OK, but wait now…haven’t I always sounded like I was in favour of asteroid mining and other space activity by private companies? Yep.

The fact is, we’ll never be able to build colonies away from Earth, or starfaring spaceships, without mining the materials out there—it’s simply too expensive to carry it all up from down here. Governments will never be able to afford to spend the kind of money involved to mount those mining operations, and it isn’t their job. So it will have to be done by private companies.

I just think it’s important to look at all of the implications of technological progress. And I like to point out the scary stuff. That’s what writers do.

On a totally different front, I’ve often written here about space colonies (including my last post) and I deeply want to believe we’ll someday colonize worlds around other stars. Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2015 novel Aurora is a compelling account of a generation ship sent to create just such a colony, and the things that go wrong. I highly recommend it as a great read, but you should also read this excellent feature essay by Robinson on Cory Doctorow’s blog explaining why such colonization will never happen.

I really wish he hadn’t done such a good job of it.


Remember old cartoons and movies that featured an astronaut proudly planting a flag to claim a new planet for his native land? Have you ever dreamed of staking a claim on your very own asteroid for a family mining operation and homestead, gliding along under the Milky Way?

Reuters news agency announced this morning that the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is going to extend its current licensing authority over commercial space launches in the United States to the licensing of companies for projects on the Moon. Bigelow Aerospace plans to spend billions of dollars to put inflatable space habitats on the Moon, and the FAA is saying the company can expect to have exclusive rights to the territory they choose and related areas.

Holy Swiss cheese! The FAA is offering them the Moon?

Well, technically the FAA is just saying that if they license Bigelow to plant its habitats, they won’t license anybody else to drop in and exploit the same patch of moonscape. They don’t really dare to say more than that because the FAA doesn’t have the authority to award property rights, mineral rights, or any other rights on the Moon or any other planet.

The old cigar-with-fins spaceship landing on the Moon and an astronaut jumping out to plant the Stars and Stripes became out-of-date in 1967 when the United Nations Outer Space Treaty went into effect (a couple of years before an astronaut actually did jump out of a spacecraft and plant the Stars and Stripes on the Moon. Hmmmm.) Anyway, the treaty says that nobody can claim ownership of anything in outer space because it’s for all humankind to share.

That’s an issue for companies like Bigelow that want to land on the moon, and it’s likely to become a more pressing issue as companies and organizations attempt to win the Google Lunar X-Prize of $20 million (plus subsidiary prizes), because any of them that do succeed in reaching the Moon will surely want to be able to make it worth their while afterward, too. There are also a number of companies proceeding with serious plans to mine asteroids.

So who should decide property and other rights in outer space? The United Nations or a special subsidiary of it? Some new international body (a United Federation of Planets anyone?)

I think the key question is whether we want to repeat what’s been done on Earth. Do we want the wealthiest nations to have their way on whatever territory they can reach because they have the means to get there? Do we want rich people to have the ability to buy up all the available land they can afford and then sell pieces of it to the rest of us for the highest price they can get? Do we want big corporations to have favoured status when it comes to exploiting mineral or other resources, leaving the “little guy” scrabbling for the dregs? That’s the way it is here and now, on Earth, and has been for a long time. Or do we want the exploration of space to be a break from the past—a chance to do things differently?

If so, the UN Outer Space Treaty isn’t going to be adequate for the challenges (legal and otherwise) of the coming century. It needs an upgrade, and we average folk need to make our desires known. Before big American companies get settled in on the Moon. By then it might be too late.