Jan 26, 2021 - Science

The coming land rush in space

Illustration of an astronaut with a cowboy hat and lasso.  
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Space is the new Wild West. Nations and space companies are racing to come to a consensus on what they can own, mine and take possession of in outer space before competitors stake ground first.

Why it matters: Private companies are building their businesses on sending spacecraft to the Moon, asteroids and other objects in the coming years to eventually extract resources that will be used or sold.

  • While companies are still years away from being able to effectively mine the Moon for resources, lack of clear regulation creates uncertainty for them — and threatens projections that the space industry will become a trillion dollar industry by 2040.

What's happening: In an economics report released just before the Biden administration took office, the Trump administration warned that working out space property rights will be key to the space industry's growth.

  • "Although applications like space mining and space solar power satellites might be decades away from being profitable enterprises, it is worth laying the foundation for the emergence of future space industries now," the report reads.

The big picture: Right now, the United Nations' Outer Space Treaty effectively governs property rights in space, but it's very much open to interpretation, particularly when it comes to space companies, experts say.

  • Countries and companies cannot own land on cosmic bodies, but countries have been allowed to effectively own what they can extract in space — like dirt from the Moon.
  • The big question now is centered around what companies might be able to own and sell eventually — like water they extract from the Moon or heavy metals from asteroids — without owning property.
  • "If you have two competing companies or two competing governments looking to use the same resource deposits on the Moon, for example, who has first claim? Who has access? Who has the right to use that space, and over what period of time?" Ian Christensen, of the Secure World Foundation, told me.

The intrigue: Today, many in the space industry are advocating for a framework governing property rights that isn't based on a "first come, first served" mentality.

  • Instead of seeing space as a place that should be exploited for gains by one nation, many are starting to think the focus should be on preservation and fairness among many.
  • "We can find ways to both develop and use resources, and do so in a responsible way," Jessy Kate Schingler of the Open Lunar Foundation told me.

NASA is working to sign a variety of nations onto its Artemis Accords, in part, as a way to standardize how many nations are looking at resource extraction and development in space.

  • While NASA wants to help create a sustainable environment for private development of space, the most important thing for the space agency today is to focus on a robust framework for using resources extracted in space — called ISRU, or in-situ resource utilization — and scientific sampling, according to NASA's Mike Gold.
  • "We don't want policy to fall behind our substantive activities, and that's why it's important that we focus on ensuring that there is as much global understanding and common ground, relative to ISRU and scientific sampling," Gold told me.
  • NASA has plans to buy cached Moon dirt from four private companies that are expected to launch to the lunar surface in the coming years.

Yes, but: Aside from the U.S., China is arguably the nation closest to managing to extract resources from cosmic bodies, and Beijing hasn't yet signed on to the Artemis Accords.

  • NASA is unable to enter into bilateral agreements with China without congressional approval, so getting on the same page will likely be difficult to manage for both nations.

What's next: The space industry is now looking to the Biden administration to see what comes next for space property rights.

  • Some predict the new administration will slow down efforts to get people back to the Moon by 2024, opting for a later date instead.
  • That could lead to companies like Blue Origin and SpaceX, which are already working on building spacecraft to land humans on the Moon, jumping ahead — and potentially driving the direction of new rules.
  • "So, having a regulatory or policy framework that responds to that is going to be even more important," Schingler said.
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