It’s not exactly a plot line from Cowboys & Aliens, but the once futuristic idea of extracting minerals from asteroids is no longer a purely imaginative one. Texas is home to billion dollar investors in terms of mineral extraction and mining strategies, but even a construction attorney in San Antonio well-versed in extraction legalities and mineral rights law, might have a hard time wrapping their brain around what might be just around the corner: outer space. For some, it’s a simple hobby to envision big energy and mining corporations flying through our atmosphere and through the depths of space, but how current U.S. law might intersect with mining in outer space could be a pretty big deal, both legally and politically, as one Space Law professor emphasizes.
The problem, as it almost always is with minerals, is rights. Forward-thinking optimists see outer space and asteroid mining as a boon for both new technologies and replenishing earth’s diminishing stock of rare earth minerals. But one space lawyer, Joanne Gabrynowicz, expresses her concern and recommends caution. The disputes over these mineral rights aren’t between Texans governed under the same state and federal laws that a construction attorney in San Antonio representing cases for the Eagle Ford Shale, for example, would be familiar with. Space “is really big, and doing stuff there is really expensive.”
But cost—“even billionaires need additional investors for that sort of thing”—is only one part of the challenges posed by such an exciting venture. The biggest, according to Gabrynowicz, is politics. Refreshing our memories about what has happened in the Arctic, where formidable barriers of ice once impeded the attempts for countries to lay claim to segments of the area. Now, though, “global warming has made the oil- and natural-gas-rich Arctic seabed accessible for the first time, and there has been a rush to lay claims for the territory.” Some of the claims have been made by countries playing dirty, like Russia’s sneaking in and using “a submersible to plant its flag on the seabed” at the North Pole.
If the global powers are having trouble peacefully deciding how to operate in the Arctic, imagine the potential for international tension when one nation takes outer space into their own hands. Construction attorney in San Antonio Michael C. Van knows just how many statutes and regulations govern construction here, on the ground, in Texas. But in outer space?
Right now there are very few. Recently the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee held a hearing on the Asteroid Act which would lay out how outer space ventures would mutually recognize ownership of resources by competing companies. But that only works within the U.S., and the possibility of igniting international conflict without international consensus about outer space and asteroid mining is too great, according to Gabrynowicz.
Other space lawyers disagree with the risk, thinking it’s better for the U.S. to put “the regulatory framework in place in stages to match the staged development of technology,” addressing international issues as they come up. It seems a bit risky, as a construction attorney in San Antonio used to dealing with conflict and lawsuits over land and mineral rights might foresee.
Still, there’s something appealingly American about the strategy of asking for forgiveness rather than permission. Asteroid belt, here we come.