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Several companies are already working on plans to mine space objects, but who owns what in space?

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Let's pretend that you're China and I'm the United States. It's 2066, and you and I both have our eyes on an asteroid passing between Earth and Mars. We each plan to send a spaceship to capture the rock and to bring it back into lunar orbit. I can't wait to get my drill bits into it, because the asteroid happens to be chock full of platinum. But you want to mine it, too, because it also has lots of water, and you want it to serve as a supply station for a craft that you're sending to Mars. Which of us owns the asteroid? Can we each take from it what we want? Who decides? 

Well, as of present-day space law, we both own the asteroid, and neither of us do, and everyone does. The fact is, there aren't many agreed upon laws governing the ownership of celestial objects, and laws that do exist, have holes so big you could fly a Saturn-sized rocket through them, but we need to start figuring this stuff out, because that scenario I just described where you and I are fighting over an asteroid? That's not too far off. In fact, in 2015, the US government passed the commercial space launch competitiveness act, a law saying that American companies can own whatever they collect from objects in space, whether it's the moon or an asteroid or Mars, and do what they like with it.

This law was created because several American companies are already planning to extract resources from asteroids, which can contain water, precious metals, or gases that could be used to fuel passing spacecraft. Meanwhile, other groups have been talking about mining the Moon. Among other things, the moon holds an abundance of Helium-3, a gas that comes from solar radiation, and it's thought to be a potential fuel for nuclear fusion reactions. 

So what's to keep a company or a country from flying to a celestial object and setting up shop? Well, internationally, there are two main laws on the books that deal with who owns what in space. The first is known simply as the Outer Space Treaty. It was signed by more than 60 countries, including the US, most European nations, and what was then the Soviet Union in 1967. The treaty is long and full of legalese, but the first part of it states that "the exploration and use of outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, shall be carried out for the benefit of all countries", and it adds that "space shall be the province of all mankind." This is often taken to mean that the stuff that's done in space should be done for the good of everyone, not just for the good of the country that's doing it, and not just for the countries that have space programs. The treaty goes on to say that no part of outer space can be appropriated by any country, "by means of use or occupation," which means that a country can't land on an asteroid or the Moon or Mars and just say, mine!

Now, at least some legal scholars today are warning that the Outer Space Treaty means that we can't go around drilling on asteroids or mining the Moon, because they say that the treaty prohibits anyone taking or appropriating what they find in space, and selling it would seem to violate the directive that work done in space should benefit all humankind. But others have been arguing the opposite. Space mining advocates point out that having, say, Helium-3 available to produce nuclear fusion would be a huge benefit to humanity, and there's nothing in the treaty that says you can't make a little dough while gathering that helium and bringing it to Earth. They add that the new American law says companies can own whatever they extract from something like an asteroid, but it doesn't let them outright own the asteroid, which brings us to the second major document in space law: the Moon Agreement, which also strikes me as a pretty good band name.

The Moon Agreement was passed by the UN General Assembly in 1979, and it stipulates that, "The moon and other celestial bodies should be used exclusively for peaceful purposes, and that their environments should not be disrupted, and that the moon and the stuff on it can never become anyone's property." That seems pretty straightforward, right? Mining on the Moon would pretty much disrupt its environment, and if the stuff you mine isn't your property, you can't sell it, can you?

Well, maybe. There are disputes about that, too, but the bigger problem is not many folks have actually agreed to this treaty. Only 16 nations have joined the Moon Agreement, the biggest of which are Australia, Mexico, and Saudi Arabia, but the US, Russia, and China won't take part in it.

So you can see from this crash course in space law that who owns what in space is a complicated question, and that we're still left with the possibility that not too long from now, a couple of countries could be jocking over a chunk of rock in space. It might seem far off, but pretty soon, anyone who cares about space or the moon or helium or fusion is going to have to grapple with this question, and it looks like for now, we're just going to have to wait and see.

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