Sparks Fly in House Science Committee Over Asteroid Property Rights Bill

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)

In a contentious hearing on Wednesday, the Republican controlled House Science Committee approved a measure that would give companies rights to materials they mine from asteroids over complaints from Democrats that the measure was unconstitutional and drawn up to benefit a single company.

The Space Resource Exploration and Utilization Act of 2015 was approved by a party line vote of 18-15. The bill is sponsored by Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL) and Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA). Identical legislation has been introduced in the Senate.

Posey said the measure would give companies the right to own and sell materials they mine from asteroids. The measure does not allow a company to own asteroids, nor does it apply to the moon or other planets, he said.

Democrats called the measure unconstitutional, saying it clashed with the nation’s obligations under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty that banned ownership of extraterrestrial resources. They cited an expert who testified to that effect at a hearing last year.

Posey disputed the claim, saying the Outer Space Treaty can be interpreted by nations. He said obstructionists had come up with a single legal expert who said the legislation didn’t answer every question the person had about it. Posey also warned that other nations were preparing to pursue asteroid mining.

Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) said the House Science Committee should not be passing legislation to benefit a single company that found two friends in Congress to sponsor it. Edwards identified the company by name. However, the asteroid mining company Planetary Resources is located in Washington State, which co-sponsor Kilmer represents.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) introduced a substitute amendment that would direct the Office of Science and Technology to convene an inter-agency review to examine the legal issues relating to asteroid property rights. The National Academies also would conduct its own independent review.

Johnson’s measure was defeated by a party line vote of 18-14. The measure goes on to a vote in the full House.