The croudsourcing website Kickstarter has had its share of audacious projects in the past, but one that wraps up at the end of this month is truly out of this world. Planetary Resources, a Seattle-based aerospace company, has already achieved its initial goal of $1,000,000 for the ARKYD space telescope. Named for a corporation in the Star Wars universe, the satellite will provide public access to state-of-the-art imaging capabilities, allowing anyone from grade school science fair competitors to grad school doctoral candidates to take pictures of objects in space. While itself revolutionary, ARKYD is only a side project for the company; its main goal is the profitable exploitation of asteroids.
The idea is an ambitious one, but Planetary Resources has gained the support (and funding) of respected businessmen and scientists, including Google co-founder Larry Page and chairman Eric Schmidt, investor Ross Perot, Jr., and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. The company undoubtedly requires vast amounts of start-up capital: possible asteroids must first be identified with the ARKYD telescope, then examined by flyby missions and surveyed by prospecting satellites. Once viable targets are found, however, the company will have a business model based on the law of gravity itself. Any real colonization or exploration of space requires large amounts of bulky, heavy raw materials, especially water, which can serve as everything from human life support to spacecraft fuel. Yet launching the necessary quantities of these materials from Earth’s surface is ludicrously expensive, ranging from $4,500 to $11,000 per pound. The materials harvested in space would have already overcome the most expensive part of space exploration, getting into orbit, and could be sold at prices well below the cost of launch.
Existing research on asteroids has shown them to be full of useful and valuable materials, and different types of asteroids contain different riches. C-type asteroids, the most common, are largely composed of carbon and are most promising for the extraction of water. S-type asteroids, or “stony” asteroids, are made mostly of iron and magnesium compounds, which could provide the raw materials for manufacturing in space. Perhaps the most glamorous, however, are the M-type, or metallic, asteroids. These rocks are the rarest asteroid type, but what they lack in quantity they make up in quality: just one platinum-rich M-type asteroid is thought to contain approximately 7,500 tons of the precious metal, a value of over $150 billion.
Given these kind of figures (literally) floating around, there has been surprisingly little exploration of the legal ramifications of asteroid mining. The most relevant piece of legislation is the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, a U.N. resolution that protects “the moon and other celestial bodies” from “national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.” This law has received only one challenge over the course of its existence, a claim by Gregory Nemitz, CEO of the private space exploration company Orbital Development, to the asteroid Eros in response to NASA’s exploration of the object. The lawsuit was dismissed without an official decision, leaving the legality of claims to asteroids unsettled. Nemitz’s opinion on the matter, however, is worth quoting: “Today it is probably best to just carry forward with the engineering projects aiming to extract and use space resources and not worry too much about property rights. Property rights are officially recognized primarily to protect property from theft and vandalism. Space is vast and there aren’t any neighbors vying to steal your property, so don’t worry too much about it.”