Asteroids Will Fuel Space Travel

Heavenly commodities.

Photographer: Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images

NASA has so far identified about 12,000 space rocks orbiting in Earth's cosmic vicinity. A small but ambitious group of investors has a novel plan for these celestial neighbors: They hope to mine them for fun and profit.

It's an appealing possibility, and not entirely crazy. Asteroids are likely rich in two resources: platinum (and related metals) and water. The metals might be worth a fortune if they could be cheaply transported home. And the water -- more intriguingly -- could prove instrumental in enabling spacefarers to travel long distances from Earth. It could provide fuel for spacecraft, protection from cosmic radiation and sustenance for intrepid explorers. Fueling up in space, moreover, would drastically cut costs by reducing loads at liftoff.

One problem: All this is quite possibly illegal.

Commercial activities in the cosmos are governed by an international treaty regime, including the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which forbids claims of national sovereignty in space. While the drafters of these treaties pretty clearly envisioned the extraction and use of resources from celestial bodies, the legal status of the dredged-up loot has long been contested.

That ambiguity should be resolved. But negotiating a new international treaty would be an onerous and possibly futile undertaking. Instead, the U.S. should collaborate with other spacefaring nations to reach an agreement on general principles for resource extraction. Joanne Gabrynowicz, professor emerita at the University of Mississippi, suggests that one model could be the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee, a group of space agencies that set guidelines for limiting space junk that were eventually adopted through the United Nations.

A similar group might agree to guidelines for space mining. To keep from violating the sovereignty provision of the Outer Space Treaty, for instance, it might require that a company's claim on an asteroid be limited in time and location. It might also require that miners take steps to develop their claim before being granted ownership rights and encourage them to work in tandem with scientific researchers. In the U.S., Congress could help by specifying what agency should regulate such enterprises and by articulating clear licensing requirements.

With such guidelines in place, investors could be more confident that mining companies are lawful, that their eventual property rights will be respected, and that there's a legitimate forum for resolving disputes or registering objections.

All of which isn't to say that their operations would be successful. A profitable space-mining venture requires a market, which won't materialize anytime soon. Asteroids are a diverse and understudied lot that may be harder to exploit than hoped. And there's currently no economically viable way of delivering mined products to Earth.

But that's OK! Even if these initial ventures fail, as seems likely, they could advance some important science. They might assist space agencies in learning more about asteroids, which could help mitigate the threat of dangerous collisions with Earth. And they could offer a chance to experiment with engineering, resource extraction and maybe even manufacturing in the deeply unforgiving environment of outer space.

Such ambitious research is likely to be a critical prerequisite to a sustained human presence in the cosmos. And that, in the end, would be far more rewarding than an asteroid's worth of platinum.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.