Planetary Resources, a company backed by investors such as Google Chairman Eric Schmidt and director James Cameron, has announced a plan to mine asteroids. The company says it will initially mine water and platinum, hoping to “provide stability on Earth, increase humanity’s prosperity, and help establish and maintain a human presence in space.” Considering rare metal’s cost, perhaps the company will also turn a profit.
While the United States can generally regulate the activities of U.S. corporations as it sees fit, it is also bound by its treaty obligations. There is some concern that the 1967 Outer Space Treaty bans asteroid mining. Article II provides that “Outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.” Article VI requires states to ensure that their nationals also comply with these terms.
Wired Science has argued that the ban on “appropriation” is not a ban on mining because the Treaty also allows the free exploration and use of outer space. Since the treaty entered into force, it is evident from the subsequent practice of states that taking resources from a celestial object conforms with the Treaty.
The Apollo missions, for example, brought back 842 pounds of lunar material. NASA has exercised rights in the lunar samples tantamount to ownership, and the U.S. government has prosecuted individuals for improperly obtaining them. Further, some lunar samples given to the Soviet Union were sold to private individuals.
It would seem clear from this example that a private company may acquire and sell interests in celestial material.