Who Owns The Asteroids?

One company's plan to mine asteroids may fly in the face of international treaty.

THE GIST

A private company wants to mine asteroids for metals and raw materials.

There is a United Nations treaty that prohibits ownership of celestial bodies by nations, but does not specifically address rights of individuals or companies.

Of all the hurdles facing Planetary Resources, a startup firm that this week unveiled its plan to survey and mine asteroids for water, precious metals and other resources, legal jurisdiction is not at the top of the list.

"We as a U.S. company certainly have the right to go an asteroid and make use of its resources," Planetary Resources co-founder Eric Anderson told Discovery News.

"It is a stated goal of the U.S. government to enable and promote commercial activities and economic activity in space," he said.

That may be so from a national standpoint, but asteroid mining may be at odds to the 1967 United Nations Outer Space Treaty, the legal framework for international space law. The United States is among more than 100 countries that have signed the treaty.

Article 2 of the treaty states: "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."

The issue of private property in space has been a topic that people have been discussing on and off, particularly over this past decade with the advent of more commercial space entities, said Bigelow Aerospace attorney Michael Gold.

"The UN treaty in essence forbids private ownership of celestial property. According to the treaty, you could not arrive on the moon or an asteroid and claim it for ownership, at least as a country. Things get a little more confusing when you talk about ownership by a company, but I think most lawyers would tell you that they are one in the same and that whether it's a corporation or a nation you cannot, according to the treaty, claim private celestial property," Gold told Discovery News.

OPINION: Mining Asteroids: Not Mankind's Silver Bullet

That said, he doubts the treaty will be show-stopper for companies, such as Planetary Resources, that are eying natural resources beyond Earth.

"Any nation can pull out of that treaty with a year's warning, so I think it would be wrong or misplaced to either criticize or slow-roll development efforts, such as what Planetary Resources is proposing, due to the treaty if for no other reason than the United States can pull out at any time and therefore not be bound by the treaty," Gold said.

Legal justification to mine asteroids likely would follow technical capability, he added.

"It is my belief that in the end, capability will trump law," Gold said.

Planetary Resources will have decades to work out any legal kinks. The company, based in Bellevue, Wash., is developing a line of low-cost observatories that would be put into orbit around Earth and sold to commercial, educational and research entities for a variety of purposes including remote studies of near-Earth asteroids.

PHOTOS: Top 10 Ways to Stop an Asteroid

Ultimately, Planetary Resources will send a prospecting spacecraft to a targeted asteroid to inventory its contents and test extraction techniques.

"We have a long view. We're not expecting this company to be an overnight financial homerun," Anderson said.