3 mins read 07 Sep 2020

Protecting Space from Mining

Several prominent Australian’s have signed a Canadian-led effort to promote the regulation of space mining.

Artist illustration of Moon mining. Credit: ROOM.

Whilst the prospect of mining resources in outer space sounds lucrative to some, several leading space community members have expressed their concerns that there may be drastic consequences if we don’t put agreed upon guidelines in place now. 

A letter, drafted by the Outer Space Institute in Canada, is stating just that, and is asking for something to be done. The letter has many signatories which includes several Australians, such as Christoper Pyne, the former Australian Minister for Defence, and Associate Prof. Dr. Alice Gorman, a prominent researcher in the field of space archaeology from Flinders University.

What Protects Space Now?

There are five space treaties, none of which are legally binding, which currently govern the use of outer space. The most important of these is the 1967 “Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies”, also known more simply as “The Outer Space Treaty”. 

In articles I and II of this treaty, it is outlined that space is legally a global commons, and so is not subject to individual national law, nor can it be legally claimed by any one nation. In this document it is explicitly stated that the exploration and use of space is “the province of all mankind” (original language from the 1967 treaty, though now these days it is referred to as ‘humankind’). Therefore, when it comes to the situation of space mining, the legalities of ownership, and what can and can’t be mined, becomes a tricky situation.

Why has This Become an Issue?

This issue has only recently come into critical light as space mining, the construction of mines and the use of minerals and water from places such as the Moon or asteroids, seems to be creeping ever closer to reality. 

Current US President Donald Trump has particularly sparked unease when it comes to the legal status of outer space and its use in mining with an executive order that he signed in April this year. In this order, it was stated “Outer space is a legally and physically unique domain of human activity, and the United States does not view it as a global commons”. This statement is particularly alarming as it goes against the Outer Space Treaty and the idea that space lies outside of national jurisdiction.

The letter from the Outer Space Institute, addressed directly to Dr. Muhammad-Bande who is the President of the United Nations General Assmbly, expresses concerns that mining in space could become a Wild West free-for-all if regulations are not put in place soon. 

They propose that these regulations should be similar to those that are in place for Antarctica or the world’s sea beds. Using such an international agreement would minimise conflict, encourage cooperation between nations, and continue to protect space as a global commons.

Otherwise, “In the absence of a multilateral process for governing space resource exploration, exploitation and utilization,” the letter states, “national approaches risk the development of separate, possibly inconsistent, governance frameworks, while marginalizing input from developing and non-spacefaring States.”

There is now an open call to sign the letter To sign the letter, see the link below.