“We are going to build a road to space, and then amazing things will happen.” – Jeff Bezos
Lead CEO’s such as Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Dennis Muilenburg are discussing building the necessary space vessels to make living outside of this world possible. However, space, like the high seas, is a tricky territory to navigate, since no one country has any actual rights over it or legal claim to it. So before we venture into discussions about future enterprises in space, it would be prudent to assess potential legal issues that may arise.
For instance, many countries would like to set up space stations and mine various materials such as water, gold, platinum, and rare earth elements from the moon. In 1979, the UN proposed the Moon Agreement, which would allow countries to carry out this goal by essentially setting up an international regime to govern the feasible exploitation of the moon’s resources. However, only 11 countries have ratified it, and some of the most important countries in the history of space exploration – US, China, and Russia- have yet to ratify this Agreement.
Many people believe that the world should approach extracting resources from Earth’s Moon in the same way that the US has approached extracting resources from asteroids. In 2015, Congress passed the SPACE Act, which allowed private American companies and citizens to keep space resources that were not biologically alive (minerals, metals, ore, elements, and other natural resources), which they extracted from celestial bodies (predominantly asteroids and deep space moons). The goal of this type of “space mining” is to sell the resources from these celestial bodies to companies that will use the resources to fuel other space operations from Earth. However, space mining is not the only area of space colonization where the laws have yet to be firmly established.
Space debris is another area where both countries and companies may face liability. There are more than 500,000 pieces of space debris floating around Earth’s orbit, and over 166 million objects floating around between 1 mm to 1 cm in size. Currently, the Outer Space Treaty (the “Treaty”) has established that each launching nation is responsible for the space debris damage they cause. Under the Treaty, each launching nation owns both its space property and its debris in perpetuity. However, the laws concerning space debris liability may need to be revisited due to the large increase in space debris and the dangers arising from such an increase. Current laws require permission from the owner of the space debris to remove the debris. However, James A. Vedda, a senior policy analyst, believes that the laws should be amended to allow for the quick and efficient removal of space debris by non-owner parties. Luckily, Article XV of the Outer Space Treaty does allow for amendment of the Treaty by any state party to the Treaty.
Thus, as space technology advances, we must update our space laws to address the consequences of such advancements and expansions into space. It would be wise for the law to address such things as disposal of space junk and interstellar mining rights before we start sending Earth’s population out into space to colonize the unknown.
Golzar Yazdanshenas is a second-year law student at Wake Forest University School of Law. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Economics and several minors, including a minor in Science Technology & Law from Virginia Tech. Upon graduation, she intends to practice in both corporate and intellectual property law.