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In a speech yesterday at a meeting of the International Astronautical Congress in Washington vice president Mike Pence pushed the importance of property rights in space, noting that the Trump administration is looking for ways to protect those rights.
He made clear that the United States would continue to observe international agreements on space activities — presumably including the Outer Space Treaty, which rules out claims of sovereignty on the moon or other celestial bodies. But Pence also said America’s partners should respect private ownership in space, which is a less settled legal frontier.
“As more nations gain the ability to explore space and develop places beyond Earth’s atmosphere, we must also ensure that we carry into space our shared commitment to freedom, the rule of law and private property,” he said. “The long-term exploration and development of the moon, Mars and other celestial bodies will require the use of resources found in outer space, including water and minerals. And so we must encourage the responsible commercial use of these resources.”
Pence hinted that the United States will be developing new policies relating to the use of space resources. “We will use all available legal and diplomatic means to create a stable and orderly space environment that drives opportunity, creates prosperity and ensures our security on Earth into the vast expanse of space,” he said.
I’m not sure how the U.S. can do this, however, under the limitations placed on us by the Outer Space Treaty. Without the ability to apply U.S. sovereignty to any private operations on the Moon, Mars, or asteroids, it will be impossible to apply U.S. law to those operations.
One avenue that the Trump administration might be considering is an amendment to the treaty that would allow nations to apply their laws to their citizens in space, not the territory on which they land and develop. Such an approach would avoid breaking the treaty’s restrictions on not claiming territory, but it would still achieve essentially the same thing.