Asteroid Property Rights Legislation Introduced in Congress

Welcome WRANGLER, a NIAC-funded idea to capture and de-spin asteroids and space debris. (Credit: Robert Hoyt/Tethers Unlimited)
Welcome WRANGLER, a NIAC-funded idea to capture and de-spin asteroids and space debris. (Credit: Robert Hoyt/Tethers Unlimited)

Legislation that would grant property rights to entities mining asteroids has been introduced in Congress.

“Any asteroid resources obtained in outer space are the property of the entity that obtained such resources, which shall be entitled to all property rights thereto, consistent with applicable provisions of Federal law,” the measure states.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) has introduced the Space Resource Exploration and Utilization Act of 2015 with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) as co-sponsor. Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL) has introduced an identical measure in the House with Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA) as co-sponsor.

Washington State is home to Planetary Resources, one of two American asteroid mining companies. The other company is Deep Space Industries, which is located in California.

The legislation would require the President to submit to Congress within 180 days a report containing “recommendations for (1) the allocation of responsibilities relating to the exploration and utilization of space resources among Federal agencies; and (2) any authorities necessary to meet the international obligations of the United States with respect to the exploration and utilization of space resources.”

The act would also require the President to facility the commercial exploration and utilization of space, discourage government barriers to these activities consistent with international obligations, and promote the right of U.S. companies to utilize and sell asteroid resources free of harmful interference.

The measure would provide companies with the ability to seek civil relief in court if their activities are interfered with by other entities. Companies would be required to  “avoid causing harmful interference in outer space.”

  • DJN

    I’m all for it, but somebody must have written it for her because Patty Murray is dumb as dirt.

  • Kapitalist

    Laws about non-scarce properties, is a waste of law. As if someone refrains from mining an asteroid because they are afraid that someone else will come and take it! It’s not really that crowded out there. This is a kind of problem which doesn’t need a solution. Let the first conflict go to court when it happens, and let that court, based on actual information about what is happening, make the law. This cannot be speculated a century in advance.

  • Michael J. Listner

    A reciprocal bill was introduced in the House on March 15th. (H.R. 1508) Looks identical to the Senate bill.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Great! This is exactly what is needed to push space settlement forward.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Nice in theory. But it has the potential to be expensive and a mess in practice. That is the same attitude that created triggered the creation of the horrible Law of the Sea Treaty.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Given that Redmond, Washington is home to Planetary Resources it is no surprise Sen. Murray introduced this bill or that someone likely worked with her staff to draft it.

  • mzungu

    I am still waiting for my under-the-sea settlements to mine those nodules to build my flying car.

  • Terry Rawnsley

    It is really nice to know that the Congress of the United States has the power to give land grants to off-planet bodies. I’m curious to know just what part of the Constitution gives them that power?

  • Emmet Ford

    How can it not contravene article 2 of the Outer Space Treaty?

  • Michael J. Listner

    Okay, I got the “Asteroid Act” (H.R. 5063) from 2014 and did a side by with H.R. 1508 and S. 976. H.R. 1508 and S. 976 are identical. They are copies of H.R. 5063 with the addition of the following:

    A definition section at the beginning of the bill (51301)

    The addition of a Report requirement (51302(b))

    The creation of a right to a civil action in federal district court (51302(c))

    Those are the only substantive changes from H.R. 5063 (the Asteroid Act)

  • Michael J. Listner

    The way international space law is currently written there is nothing preventing private mineral resource rights (except for the Moon Treaty, which has questionable legal value), but there is nothing that specifically allows it either,

  • Terry Rawnsley

    My question was both whimsical and rhetorical as we both know that this is an unconstitutional (or more accurately, not constitutionally authorized) reach on the part of Congress. I think this “recognition” should come with the caveat that there is no way the United States will commit military resources to defend these claims.

  • mzungu

    Nobody of any consequence signed and verified that Treaty… 😀 These so call space law are 90% BS anyway

  • ThomasLMatula

    That is because the Law of the Sea Treaty requires mining firms to turn over half of their claims to the Sea Bed Authority and then pay royalties on the other half.

    No sane mining firm is going to invest its resources in developing the technology needed under those socialist requirements. Which is what the third world countries that make their fortunes on exporting metals to the develop world wanted.

    By contrast this bill merely codifies existing legal precedents by government in handling extraterrestrial resources. So its a real winner by making it clear those legal precedents will apply to private entities and will be a step forwarding in developing interest in mining Asteroid resources.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Because it is not establishing real property rights, only stating that the existing personal (chatel) property rights to extra terrestrial materials that government have applies to private entities operating under U.S. law as well. This was implied by the space treaties, but this law makes it explicit in regards to asteroids.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Nope it is not. It is merely saying that the rights the U.S. government has enjoyed in regards to extra terrestrial materials apply to private entities as well in regard to asteroids. And it comes directly under the Commerce Clause under Article 1, Section 8.

    “To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes;”

    Asteroid mining for profit definitely meets the definition of commerce.

    Now on the other hand, its hard to see the constitution justification for searching for life in space…

  • Snofru Chufu

    What happens if I sent my flag to an asteroid and claim it as my own sovereign territory, for example as the independent “Republic of Vesta”? Do I have to face an US invasion?

  • stoffer

    I don’t anyone would bat an eye. The core of the problem is how to legally sell the stuff mined in space on Earth.

  • stoffer

    It is important. You need to be able to legally import and sell the stuff on Earth. Space mining is not that sci-fi. Bringing stuff from space to Earth is cheap – it happens all the time in fact. It is the other way around that is hard.

  • Terry Rawnsley

    One need not find a Constitutional justification for every activity of government and your interpretation of the Commerce Clause renders it so thin I can see starlight through it. While I would not dispute that the Commerce Clause grants the government the right to regulate the business of asteroid mining in myriad ways, it cannot be stretched so far as to validate land grants.

    Perhaps a legal underpinning for this endeavor can be found (at least one which can be recognized domestically, if not internationally) in the U.S. Supreme Court case of Johnson v. M’Intosh, 21 U.S. 543, 8 Wheat 543 where the Court declared that, initially, all land in what was then the United States originally belonged to the European nation that claimed it subject to the right of occupancy by the resident Indians. Whether by sale or treaty, this right of ownership passed to the United States government and only it had the power to make land grants within its territory. Unoccupied lands could be claimed but they were claimed in the name of the nation. This may provide your legal underpinning. Still, this claim would have no validity internationally in the absence of a treaty regulating this type of activity.

  • Snofru Chufu

    I think in the moment, if it becomes reality, the governments will introduces a pretty nice tax for imported goods and energy from space and all is good.

  • Terry Rawnsley

    A bigger problem may be “Where are you going to mine it?” If you mine in situ you face the issue of transporting minerals long distances and then bringing them back down the gravity well. Bringing the asteroids themselves into near earth space creates the potential for an ecological disaster caused by millions of tons of rock circling the planet and sometimes falling intact on the population below.

  • Hug Doug

    Underwater settlements are far more difficult to build than space habitats, which is one big reason why you don’t see that happening everywhere. It’s a lot easier to design something that works to keep humans alive in 0g and a vacuum than under hundreds of thousands of tons of water.

  • Snofru Chufu

    You are right! None of these practical massives problems is solved in reality. My personal believe is that space mining needs a cost-effective, robust and durable deep space transportation system, which means non-usage of thin can technology (as applied to chemical rockets), but a allowed high structural mass coefficient (let say 30-40%). This becomes reality if safe nuclear propulsion is available. It may need 100 years or so until changed political circumstances will allow this approach.

  • stoffer

    The deltaV budgets for returning stuff to Earth are minuscule in comparison with getting anything to a near-escape Earth orbit. With ion engines and patience 3 km/s deltaV is quite cheap. It is getting the mining equipment to the asteroid that is a real pain in terms of deltaV, because of the first 11 km/s or so.

  • Snofru Chufu

    The delta-vee for return leg to Earth maybe quite small, but you have to move thousands tons of material. You need also a kind of recovery system, because you cannot trow simole the raw stuff into Earth atmosphere. In addition you may need very large energy amounts to mine the asteroids and treat the ore (I assume that some kind of in situ-processing is required).

  • Tom Billings

    “While I would not dispute that the Commerce Clause grants the government
    the right to regulate the business of asteroid mining in myriad ways,
    it cannot be stretched so far as to validate land grants.”

    That’s fine, because they are not issuing grants of land, before processing, in terms of traditional “real estate”. The law is carefully worded, so that it recognizes property only *after* a group has done something to move it from an asteroid, or an asteroid in its previous orbit. That means there will become

    a rush, once wealth is located, to “get there fustest with the mostest”, and move, process, and ship out to EML-1 the most valuable hunks they can find.

  • Tom Billings

    ” If you mine in situ you face the issue of transporting minerals long
    distances and then bringing them back down the gravity well.”

    No. There is a systemic model error in many posts on this subject, including yours above. They assume the old imperial colonization form of exploitation/settlement. This involved spending resources, often military, to acquire resources beyond the State’s boundaries, and then bring them back to support the oligarchy running the State. That seldom worked in the New World, after the gold and silver mines of Latin America ran down, and failed rather consistently in North America after 1600. North America was settled, and its resources exploited, by the capital of settlers, and liens on their developed real estate *after* they improved it. The greatest consumption of North American resources took place inside North America!

    This is what will happen, when economic success is desired, with In Situ Resources in Space. Both Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries have stated time and time again that the first generation of resource extraction will be dominated by moving water to the top of the Earth/Moon gravity well, and keeping it there, for use by settlers moving outwards.

  • Snofru Chufu

    I think we shall differentiate. Initially you have to sell platinum from asteroids and similar stuff at Earth, because there is market in space for it. Somewhat later, there might be a market for other more common metals, carbon and water for usage in space itself, but it may too expensive to export it to Moon for example (if water resources at Moon’s poles are not sufficient), if chemicals propulsion is used, because it consumed a lot of propellant (for a delta-vee of about 2.5 km/s), which stems from space resources itself.

  • Terry Rawnsley

    Not passing out land grants or registering legitimate mining claims, just sanctioning cosmic “smash and grab” operations. Oh well, nobody really owns what’s out there anyway and if somebody claims to own it, they’ll have to defend it themselves.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Why would they need to? its not the “Wild West”. If you spend multiple millions to send robots and folks to mine you are not going to risk them trading blows over it. The “Wild West” was wild only because a crook could steal enough in a single robbery to head west and jump mining claims or rob trains. Space is very different from the frontiers on Earth.

    That is why the only “fighting” will be by lawyers in courts on Earth. Not by robots on mining claims. The latter may make great science fiction, but its not reality.

  • Paul451

    Because it’s consistent with the responsibilities created by…

    Article VI
    “The activities of non-governmental entities in outer space […] shall require authorization and continuing supervision by the appropriate State Party to the Treaty.”

    Article VII
    each State Party from whose territory or facility an object is launched, is internationally liable for damage to another State Party to the Treaty or to its natural or juridical persons by such object or its component parts on the Earth, in air space or in outer space

    Article VIII
    A State Party to the Treaty on whose registry an object launched into outer space is carried shall retain jurisdiction and control over such object, and over any personnel thereof, while in outer space or on a celestial body. Ownership of objects launched into outer space, including objects landed or constructed on a celestial body, and of their component parts, is not affected by their presence in outer space or on a celestial body or by their return to the Earth.”

    The US is responsible for objects constructed on celestial bodies, by non-government entities launching from and/or registered in US territory. The US is not only permitted to regulate such entities activities, but is actively required to.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Why is it space advocate have such a difficult time understanding the difference between Real Property and Chattels (personal or movable property)?

    This law does NOT grant any real property rights or create any land grants. It merely states if you pick up a rock on an asteroid it is yours, the same privilege the government has with extra terrestrial material. The legal reasoning is simple. Once a rock is picked up it is demonstrated legally to be movable. Being movable makes it a Chattel and not Real Property, which by definition is not movable. Simple.

    Also the non-interference clause does not create real property rights. It merely states that if someone is working on a site you will not do anything to endanger them by entering the area. Period. Once they no longer have operations on going in the area, which means they have taken any equipment they have with them, anyone is free to enter that area and recover their own material. Again, the mining firms do not have Real Property Rights, only Chattel Rights.

    And it is NOT stretching the Commerce Clause, this is exactly what it was intended for, establishing that private firms have rights under existing federal law (and the Space Treaties became part of federal law when Congress ratified them) and establishing which government agency will be responsible for regulating their activities and the process of how disputes will be settled.

    Also, in theory the government is not supposed to engage in activities not covered by the Constitution. However commerce, even the potential of commerce, is included.

    Indeed, it was the problems that the original Articles inf Federation created that triggered the Constitutional Convention that created the Constitution, so this type of act is far more legitimate than most of NASA activities which only have a thin link to the Constitution and which may only be defended in terms of developing technology to benefit industry (commerce), or as with the ISS – foreign policy activities.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Why would anyone consider Asteroid mining “smash and grab”? Real Property Rights only have meaning on Earth because on Earth the majority of the land is productive for agriculture, including grazing and forestry. And since the productivity is based on the ecosystems in the soil of the land it’s value is not movable. There are no ecosystems to destroy on an Asteroid.

    That is why the Real Property laws we take for granted only developed as a result of the Agricultural Revolution. Just as the Intellectual Property laws were a result, and driver of the Industrial Revolution. Space is not Earth. Celestial Bodies are different than Earth. Why do you wish to extend laws, and values, shaped for the unique environment of Earth where they are completely unsuitable for?

    Yes they would have to defend themselves legally, since they would be in violation of the OST, unless they are a Moon Treaty nation. But U.S. firms do not have to respect any rights claimed under the Moon Treaty since the U.S. never signed it. This is also why the Moon Treaty is a bad treaty, because it create more opportunities for conflict then preventing opportunities by creating rights only a small handful of nations must respect.