Canadian Institute Urges United Nations Agreement on Use of Outer Space Resources

Thermal mining of ices on cold solar system bodies (Credit: George Sowers)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

In a challenge to the United States’ position that extraterrestrial resources can be legally extracted and utilized under existing law, The Outer Space Institute (OSI) is urging the United Nations to quickly begin work on an international agreement to govern these activities.

“It is our opinion that the speed and scale of developments relating to the exploration, exploitation and utilization of space resources require more affirmative and urgent action,” OSI said in an open letter to UN General Assembly President Tijjani Muhammad-Bande sent earlier this month.

The letter, signed by 142 space professionals, said the General Assembly should authorize the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Space (UNCOPUOUS) to “negotiate, with all deliberate speed, a draft multilateral agreement on space resource exploration, exploitation and utilization.”

OSI said that under the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, “the legal status of outer space has long been universally acknowledged by States to be an ‘area beyond national jurisdiction’ (often referred to as a ‘global commons’) similar to the high seas, the deep seabed, and Antarctica.

“All such areas have been governed through specific multilateral agreements to promote the common interests of all countries, minimize international conflicts, and develop measures to ensure transparency and build confidence,” the letter added.

OSI, which is part of the University of British Columbia, is challenging an executive order issued by Donald Trump on April 6 that asserted

Americans should have the right to engage in commercial exploration, recovery, and use of resources in outer space, consistent with applicable law. Outer space is a legally and physically unique domain of human activity, and the United States does not view it as a global commons. Accordingly, it shall be the policy of the United States to encourage international support for the public and private recovery and use of resources in outer space, consistent with applicable law.

NASA has also issued the Artemis Accord, which holds that space resource extraction is allowed under existing law.

The ability to extract and utilize resources on the Moon, Mars, and asteroids will be critical to support safe and sustainable space exploration and development.

The Artemis Accords reinforce that space resource extraction and utilization can and will be conducted under the auspices of the Outer Space Treaty, with specific emphasis on Articles II, VI, and XI.

In a separate April 6 letter to Global Affairs Canada, OSI “strongly urge[d] the Government of Canada to reiterate its policy that outer space is a global commons and work through multilateral forums to seek a widely supported international agreement on how space resources should be recovered and used.

“In our considered assessment, such an approach would support Canada’s national interests, including the interests of the Canadian space and mining industries,” the letter added.

OSI has also formulated the Vancouver Recommendations on Space Mining, a 25-point plan designed to govern negotiations on an international agreement on space resources. The recommendations came from a workshop held in March at the University of British Columbia.

The UN agreement advocated by OSI apparently would be separate from the Moon Agreement of 1979. That treaty turns jurisdiction over celestial bodies over to the participant countries.

Only 18 nations are parties to the Moon Agreement, with seven countries ratifying it. None of the major space powers — United States, Russia, China, Japan, Canada or India — has ratified the treaty. Only three of the European Space Agency’s 22 member states are parties to the treaty.

Due to the lack of acceptance, the Moon Agreement is generally seen as having little or no relevance to international law.

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