A bill introduced in the House earlier this month that establishes property rights for resources taken from asteroids is not perfect, but a step in the right direction towards a broader resolution of property rights in outer space, a conference panel argued last week.
The American Space Technology for Exploring Resource Opportunities in Deep Space (ASTEROIDS) Act of 2014, introduced in the House earlier this month by Reps. Bill Posey (R-FL) and Derek Kilmer (D-WA), would establish that resources obtained from asteroids are the property of the company or other entity that extracted them. It would also provide “freedom from harmful interference” for those entities subject to US law engaged in asteroid mining.
“They designed it not to cause too many explosions or conflicts or problems,” said Jim Muncy, a co-founder of the Space Frontier Foundation, during a panel session on space property rights at the organization’s NewSpace 2014 conference Friday in San Jose, California. The bill was crafted, he said, to ensure it remained in the jurisdiction of the House Science Committee. He added that the bill’s sponsors also discussed the bill with State Department officials “to find out whether or not it would be a big problem for current US international obligations and policy.” That’s one reason, he said, that the bill only covers asteroids and not the Moon or other solar system bodies.
The idea of establishing property rights for extracted resources is not considered particularly controversial. Panelists noted that samples returned from the Moon by the Apollo missions, and Soviet Luna robotic missions, are considered the property of those nations. “We know that from the precedent of the Moon rocks,” said Berin Szoka, president of think tank TechFreedom, noting that some of those samples have been gifted and then resold. “There are some space lawyers who will quibble and will claim that that doesn’t mean those can actually owned in a way that they can be on Earth, but I don’t think that’s a correct view.”
The legislation isn’t perfect, though. Szoka called the introduced bill “the first draft of what I hope will ultimately get passed.” One flaw: “the one very obvious definition that’s missing is the definition of ‘asteroid.’ And by not defining that, it leaves that ambiguous.”
There’s also the question of what it means to extract resources. Sagi Kfir, corporate counsel for asteroid mining company Deep Space Industries, suggested that it might be possible to claim entire asteroids. “Asteroid are movable; they are not land property,” he said. “Asteroids, in and of themselves, are personal property” in much the same way as resources extracted, or moved, from them.
“I agree that asteroids are movable, and that asteroids are, in that sense, essentially in practice no different from a rock that you might remove from the surface, and we should essentially treat them the same way,” said Szoka.
Another issue is with the non-interference language in the bill: what does it mean to harmfully interfere with another entity’s operations on an asteroid? Kfir notes the bill’s language refers to the “exploration and use” of asteroid resources, which he suggested could allow someone to claim priority to an asteroid by simply observing it with a telescope, thus “exploring” it. “There are some gaping holes to a very thin legislation,” he said. “But it’s critical that’s fleshed out in terms of what’s ‘first in time’ and what’s the zone of this non-interference.”
The near-term prospects of resolving those issues with the bill and advancing it are unclear. Earlier this month, Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-MS), chairman of the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee, said his subcommittee was reviewing the bill, but didn’t immediately commit to holding a hearing on or marking up the bill. “We have a limited amount of legislative days this year,” he noted. (Congress goes on recess at the end of this week and does not return until after Labor Day.)
The subcommittee’s ranking member, Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), said at the conference she wants hearings about the bill before she would support move forward on the bill. “I’m always opposed to us moving forward on legislation without doing any hearings, any kind of fact-finding,” she said in an interview after her luncheon speech at the conference Saturday. She said she had not heard from NASA or from companies affected by the bill yet. “I just think it’s bad policy to move policy forward when you haven’t done the investigative work that it takes to do that.”