How SpaceX Could Legally Buy an Asteroid, and Maybe Even the Moon!


Between the unveiling of Planetary Resources, an asteroid mining company, and SpaceX, poised to become the main form of U.S. transportation to the international space station, it has become even more evident that there is a demand for space services that the private sector is looking to fill. For future galactic businessmen and space daydreamers alike, now may be the time for those dreams to become reality. Fortunately, the 1967 Outer Space Treaty will assist in reaching these goals.

The purpose of the treaty was to prevent space faring nations of the time, mainly the U.S. and the Soviet Union, from claiming sovereignty over the moon and other celestial bodies. One of the principles ratified by the U.S. was that, “outer space and celestial bodies are not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.” 

According to Art Dula, a space law professor at the University of Houston, this “specifically permits” nongovernmental agencies the right to claim resources in space. The treaty also specifically prevents nations from claiming resources or real estate in space, which leaves private companies as the only means to both extract resources and settle celestial bodies: There would be no government competitors in space.

The treaty also specifies that, “The activities of non-governmental entities in outer space shall require authorization and continuing supervision by the State concerned.” This makes sense since private expeditions will have to launch from land owned by some nation. But what about companies that decide to be headquartered in space? 

This ideas might sound far fetched at first, but remember, the treaty only prevents nations from claiming sovereignty over celestial bodies, and according to Professor Dula, permits private companies to claim property. Also, remember that international treaties are the highest law in the land, and are equal to the Constitution. Companies based in space would effectively be located in regulation-free zones.

Companies like Planetary Resources will probably benefit from the relatively regulation free environment space has to offer, but when it comes time to bring their goods back to Earth, they will reenter the jurisdiction of Earth’s nations. This inevitable link can be used by governments to ensure their influence reaches the stars.

For now, however, space remains a barely regulated environment ripe for the private sector to capitalize on. With a prize this big, how long can it be before private innovation conquers current technological obstacles?