Insight – Building Common Understanding on Space Resources Use

Monday, May 2, 2016

By SWF Project Manager, Ian A. Christensen

Exploration and Use. Concepts at the core of the Outer Space Treaty (OST) - found in the document’s title - and central to the principles that guide human activities in benefiting from space technology and applications. As the global community continues to push further in the development of space, questions relating to the relationship between, and meaning of, these terms are becoming more visible. Commercial exploration, development, and use of space resources (which some refer to as “space mining”) is currently seeing significant renewed international interest and debate. 

Interest in the topic is growing as a number of commercial companies - primarily in the United States, but internationally as well - are developing increasingly credible business plans focusing on space resources development. The international debate was sparked by the United States government signing into law a provision affirming the legal right of U.S. companies to access, use, and resell celestial resources. While Luxembourg soon followed with a pro-space resources initiative of its own, and the United Arab Emirates has signaled similar interests, other governments reacted with more skepticism. Some questioned the legality of space resources development under the non-appropriation provisions of Article II of the OST. Others questioned how benefits arising from the development of space resources might be shared globally. Still others raised the prospect of revisiting the provisions of the Moon Agreement, a treaty to which only a few states are parties. At the same time, further legal clarity and insight into likely regulatory regimes would benefit those developing commercial business plans. These factors create a window of opportunity for a discussion of the legal, policy, and regulatory context for space resources in a manner conducive to both international obligations and commercial development. 

SWF is working with other governmental and non-governmental stakeholders to facilitate a cooperative international dialogue to help resolve these issues. SWF has joined with a number of commercial, governmental, and academic partners from around the world as a founding member of the Hague Space Resources Governance Working Group. SWF Executive Director Michael K. Simpson serves as co-chair of the Working Group. The Working Group, which had its first face-to-face meeting in April 2016, will work over a two-year period “to assess the need for a regulatory framework for space resource activities and to prepare the basis for such regulatory framework.” The Working Group’s first meeting was a collaborative, open, and frank discussion of a number of legal and business issues inherent in enabling the development of space resources, and established the trust necessary to move forward. 

Our involvement in space resources issues is not limited to the activities of the Working Group, but recognizes the need to continue facilitating discussion of the issues related to this topic in the broader space community. To this end, SWF Project Manager Chris Johnson participated in the European Centre for Space Law Practitioner’s Forum focused on use of natural resources in space, including applicable laws and related frameworks. On May 5, 2016, Secure World Foundation will host a luncheon panel in Washington, D.C. to discuss practical policy, business, and legal implications of space resources development. SWF Project Manager Ian Christensen plans to participate in the Space Resources Roundtable conference in Golden, Colorado, in June 2016. We are also organizing a panel looking at the interaction of space resources and the space transportation industry as part of the International Symposium For Personal and Commercial Spaceflight in October 2016. 

As a growing commercial space industry opens additional non-traditional markets and applications like space resources – such as commercial space stations, on-orbit servicing, and perhaps the commercial exploration of Mars – the international community will find itself often examining the relationship between the legal and regulatory context and these new frontiers of exploration and use. The collaborative dialogue SWF and our partners are using in the Hague Space Resources Governance Working Group, and in our other engagements on the topic, offers one approach for building common understanding.  

Last updated on November 3, 2016