With global attention focused on the climate talks in Paris, an event of literally cosmic proportions — a licence for corporations responsible for plundering the planet’s resources to pollute outer space — has gone largely unnoticed by the media. United States President Barack Obama signed into law the Space Resource Exploration and Utilization Act (or simply, the Space Act) of 2015 recently. The Act makes it legal for American companies to own and sell natural resources that they mine from celestial bodies and minerals from asteroids. The new law has overarching implications that would violate global treaties.
All space pacts, including the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 and the Moon Agreement of 1979, are based on two principles: The right of countries to scientific exploration of celestial bodies and prevention of unilateral commercial exploitation of outer space resources.
These laws allow companies to utilise outer space for science experiments and space tourism, and to extract certain resources, provided such pursuits are in the interests of all countries. Ironically, it was the US that wrote, signed and cheer-led 124 other countries to endorse the 1967 treaty, which states that ‘celestial bodies are not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.’
Since the Space Act clearly flouts this, US lawmakers have tried to sidestep the issue with a disclaimer that ‘the US does not thereby assert sovereignty or sovereign or exclusive rights or jurisdiction over, or the ownership of, any celestial body.’
The rider is in vain, as the new Act declares ‘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.’ It allows the US to ‘prosecute’ anyone who sets up mining equipment on extra-terrestrial real estate which may have already been ‘taken’ by another company. In other words, the US reserves the rights to prosecute a foreign company for not following a US law in outer space.
Washington’s stand seems to be that things change over time and treaty writers of half a century ago could not have foreseen the possibility of nations conducting mining activities in outer space someday. Private companies, runs the argument, need economic incentives to invest in commercial spaceflight and the new law merely guarantees them legal rights over materials extracted from celestial bodies.
It is a disturbing thought that this will prompt other countries to come up with their own treaties, leading to a chaotic scramble to establish industrial bases off terra firma. China has already announced plans to set up a permanent Moon base and start mining rare-earth elements and helium 3, a non-radioactive isotope of helium (just 45 tonnes of which could power India for a whole year.)
India lacks a legal landscape for space exploration despite its impeccable credentials in space technology. Having its own space legislation like the US (but aligned with its international obligations), it could help develop a commercial space industry in the country.
The government’s recent invitation to the private sector to play a bigger role in developing telecommunication and geo-imaging satellites, and partake of mineral exploration in space, is a case in point. India, along with other spacefaring nations, could revamp existing treaties to meet challenges that commercial spaceflight may face tomorrow.
(Prakash Chandra is a science writer. The views expressed are personal)