Barack Obama: Finders keepers still the rule in space

26 Nov 2015

If you spot an asteroid you like the look of, you can head up into space and claim it as yours, for now, after the US drew down rules to encourage commercial space exploration and utilisation.

Space, essentially, remains a first come, first served jurisdiction after US President Barack Obama signed a bill allowing for a further ‘learning period’ for commercial space exploration.

Quite why anyone can give, or remove, rights to things not even in our atmosphere is beyond me, but private companies already operating up in space – note, not operating on Earth, where jurisdiction at least makes sense – are chuffed with the news.

The Space Resource Exploration and Utilisation Act of 2015 puts down on paper rules that allow US companies or citizens to mine resources “found on or within a single asteroid”. Remember ‘unobtanium’ in Avatar? I suddenly do.

Capitalism knows no barriers

“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,” reads the bill.

An example of what we’re talking about here: last summer an asteroid flew by Earth that was estimated to be worth $5trn, due to its composition – it was made almost entirely of platinum.

Naturally enough, Planetary Resources has backed the move. The company is by far the biggest company in the yet-to-be-undertaken industry of asteroid mining, having received backing from a number of influential people and organisations in tech and science, including Google’s Larry Page.

A key moment in history?

The company has already teamed up with NASA to develop a desktop software app capable of detecting 15pc more asteroids than previously possible for amateur astronomers and has sent test crafts out from the International Space Station (ISS).

“A hundred years from now, humanity will look at this period in time as the point in which we were able to establish a permanent foothold in space,” said Peter Diamandis, co-founder of the company. “In history, there has never been a more rapid rate progress than right now.”

The legislation extends a “learning period” for the industry until at least 2023, but also deals with other areas of space commercialisation. Private spaceships are given freedom from regulation – think Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo plans – and the ISS will remain in operation until at least 2024.

Space image via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic