In recent years the legal aspects of commercial space resource utilisation have been increasingly addressed by space lawyers. The debate is pushed by industry initiatives, an unclear international legal framework and the adoption of several national laws. Although the day may still be far off that space natural resources can be used for commercial gain, it is important to prepare a clear, transparent and predictable legal framework. This framework should provide a balance among the interests of all stakeholders, in a fair and equitable manner. I applaud the IISL Knowledge Constellation for providing a forum for this important topic. The Institute fulfills a major role by contributing the legal insights of its membership to this debate.
In considering the concept of “space resources,” the Outer Space Treaty offers internal contradiction. First, Article I indicates that space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, shall be free for exploration and use. However, Article II constrains use by stating that space, again, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation. Thus, while States and their nationals are free to use space, it cannot be subject to territorial or proprietary claims. While some argue that the non-appropriation principle precludes space resource utilization, this view is challenged by the Moon Agreement whose Parties clearly anticipated space resource utilization by agreeing to establish a regime to govern such use. Moreover, the no appropriation drafters of the Moon Agreement found the need to state explicitly, in Article XI(5) that natural resources “in place” may not become property of any State, nongovernmental entity or natural person – a distinction not made in the more widely-ratified Outer Space Treaty. Thus, the legal concept of “property” bedevils engineers and entrepreneurs with grand ideas of using space resources: 1) in situ, to among other things build habitat and extract water for propellant and consumption; and 2) to supplant the Earth’s more meager supplies of rare elements. Yet it need not. Common sense suggests that while some may disagree with the Moon Agreement’s characterization of space as the “common heritage of humankind,” it is incontrovertible that a governance structure must be developed to support peaceful and sustainable space resource utilization. It is equally indisputable that this structure must be arrived at multilaterally. While ideally, such multilateral discussions would take place within the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, reality imposes two very real concerns: first, the consensus driven process take time we may not have; and second, the execution of space activities is no longer reserved for States – indeed many private entities are ahead of many States in terms of technological capability. It is vital to engage these nonstate parties in the discussion of resource utilization governance as they may well be the first to demonstrate mining capabilities. Equally important is the need to develop a flexible and adaptive regime recognizing, for example, that lunar resources, which are finite, require different considerations than asteroid resources. This discussion must commence now. It’s time to put philosophical arguments aside and use common sense to support sustainable space resource utilization.
Mining activities have a promising future in the new landscape of space activities. From a legal perspective, the United Nations (UN) Space Treaties remain silent concerning who would own the rights to minerals, gases and water found in outer space. So far, this has not been a problem because most missions have been conducted for scientific goals. However, the development of commer-cial space projects in the field need legal certainty to ensure their viability and to guarantee the rights of future explorers and investors that will extract and commercialize the resources. At international level, The Hague International Space Resources Governance Working Group, established in 2016, has played a fundamental role by adopting, in November 2019, a set of Building Blocks including various provisions related to space resources activities. The Building Blocks make reference to and clarify some concepts of inter-national space law, that are essentials to support and to coordinate the use of space resources that must be acceptable for all States interested in conducting such activity. Meanwhile, some States have implemented their own national legislations, such as the United States in 2015, Luxembourg in 2017 and the United Arab Emirates in 2019. These domestic laws do not pave the way for any national appropriation by claim of sovereignty in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies. Nevertheless, they clarify State’s national position on the status of the resources that can be extracted from those celestial bodies and in outer space. They also ensure that private operators can rest assured about their rights on resources they extract when it will be possible to undertake space mining programmes. Furthermore, the legislations establish the regulations for the authorization and the supervision of private space exploration missions, including both exploration and utilization of space resources. The main objective is to facilitate commercial exploration and extraction of space resources in accordance with international law, in particular by taking into account the provisions of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, namely the principle of freedom of exploration and use (Article I) and the principle of non-appropriation which confers to outer space the status of res communis omnium (Article II); as well as the Article 11.1 of the 1979 Moon Agreement which stresses that “the Moon and its natural resources are the common heritage of mankind”, and Article 11.5. Space mining activities are expected to become viable in the near future with the progress of commercial business plans. In this context, the implementation of national legislation is an important step forward for regulating the activity. Nevertheless, the conditions for the exploitation of mineral resources will have to be determined through an appropriate international agreement discussed within multilateral forums.