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In its effort to provide legal protections to private companies attempting to do asteroid mining, it appears that the U.S.’s most recent space law directly contradicts the UN Outer Space Treaty.
The United States recently passed a law that contains an article that directly concerns asteroid mining and legalizes it. This law is the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (CSLCA), which was signed into law by President Obama in 2015. The CSLCA addresses resource extraction in Article IV, and states, “A U.S. citizen engaged in commercial recovery of an asteroid resource or a space resource shall be entitled to any asteroid resource or space resource obtained, including to possess, own, transport, use, and sell it according to applicable law, including U.S. international obligations.”
The issue here is that US law is in opposition to a UN treaty, to which the US is a signatory. The Outer Space Treaty is one of the oldest and most important agreements in the history of international space policy. Under the Outer Space Treaty, asteroid mining is illegal, since it is an appropriation of a celestial body by a State. Since the human being or organization that is doing the resource extraction is under the purview of some State, that State is responsible for the actions that are done by the nationals or organizations that are doing the mining.
This responsibility was given to the State by the sixth article of the OST and is strengthened by the Liability Convention of 1972. Since the State is responsible and liable for the actions done by their nationals, this means that the State could be interpreted as appropriating the asteroid.
I am surprised and encouraged to see two different articles about the problems of the Outer Space Treaty appear in the press less than a week after my op-ed on the very subject. I am sure there is no connection, other than the subject is increasingly topical, and others are recognizing the same things I am. Still, that these stories are appearing suggests that the chances are increasing that something will finally be done to either change or abandon the treaty.