Private industries have helped drop the cost of launching rockets, satellites and other equipment into space to historic lows. That has boosted interest in developing space – both for mining raw materials such as silicon for solar panels and oxygen for rocket fuel, as well as potentially relocating polluting industries off the Earth. But the rules are not clear about who would profit if, for instance, a U.S. company like SpaceX colonized Mars or established a moon base.
At the moment, no company – or nation – is yet ready to claim or take advantage of private property in space. But the US$350 billion space industry could change quickly. Several companies are already planning to explore the moon to find raw materials like water; Helium-3, which is potentially useful in fusion nuclear reactors; and rare earth elements, which are invaluable for manufacturing electronics. What they might find, and how easy the material is to bring back to Earth, remains to be seen.
Anticipating additional commercial interest, the Trump administration has created new rules through an executive order following a 2015 law change for how those companies might profit from operations on the moon, asteroids and other planets. Those rules conflict with a longstanding international treaty the U.S. has generally followed but never formally joined. The administration also is planning to encourage other nations to adopt this new U.S. perspective on space mining.
As a scholar of space law and policy – and a proud sci-fi nerd – I believe the international community could find new ways to peacefully govern space from examples here on our planet, including deep seabed mining and Antarctica.