As the world’s population continues to grow, vital minerals such as phosphorus, zinc, tin, gold, platinum, and lead will inevitably be exhausted on Earth due to overconsumption. In order to meet the future demand for these resources, it has been suggested that asteroids might be mined for human use on Earth. While such an idea would have been dismissible as mere fantasy in the past, two companies, Deep Space Industries (DSI) and Planetary Resources, have started developing unmanned asteroid mining craft using new technology that will soon make asteroid mining profitable. Several near-earth asteroids have been identified as suitable prospects for asteroid mining.
The key to this new industry is the knowledge that water contained within some asteroids can be broken down into hydrogen and oxygen, which can be used as rocket propellant. This makes it possible for advanced, unmanned spacecraft to continuously operate in space after leaving the earth. Additionally, by harvesting and using metals from these “low hanging fruit,” asteroid mining robots will also be able to construct new fleets of unmanned vehicles in space. This will be possible thanks to another revolutionary technology: the 3-D printer. This will be far less expensive than constructing new spacecraft on earth and launching them into space, and the energy needed to complete this construction will come from solar power.
The question that every lawyer who reads this should be asking is: “How does a person or business entity claim ownership of an asteroid?” During the Age of Sail, terrae nullius was claimed on a first-come, first-served basis. Whoever landed upon the shore of an unclaimed island and declared ownership could immediately exercise sovereignty over the new discovery. However, dominion could also be lost if a nation-state failed to continually exercise control over claimed land. Exercising constant dominion over asteroids seems like a daunting task. There are so many of them and they are constantly in motion.
One legal solution could involve attaching some form of beacon to the asteroid that will cement the claimant’s domain over the asteroid. That way, as the asteroid continues to orbit the sun, its resources will not be extracted by one who has no claim of title to it. Any entity, such as an unmanned mining craft, that approaches the asteroid will instantly receive some form of notice via radio transmission that the asteroid is private property. Naturally, this will also require some form of monitoring system to be installed on the beacon so that a title holder can, say, institute an action in replevin if someone else’s unmanned mining drone ignores the warning and continues to mine the asteroid.
Another possibility is that the asteroids themselves, which are virtually useless space flotsam aside from their water and mineral content, will not be held in any sort of title. Instead, the minerals themselves will be treated in a manner that is similar to abandoned property. In other words, whoever gets to the mineral resources or water first gets to keep it, no matter what asteroid they are found in or when they are obtained. This approach would be simpler because there would be no need to enforce any property rights, but it would also likely result in space mining becoming the new “Wild West.”