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 extract resources that will be used or sold.
- While countries and companies are still years away from being able to effectively mine the Moon for resources, the 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.
The big picture: Right now, the UN's 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 effectively been allowed to 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.
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 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.
- 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 being able 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 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 of NASA — 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.