The US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act has been signed into law. The landmark legislation includes in relevant part:
A United States citizen engaged in commercial recovery of an asteroid resource or a space resource under this chapter shall be entitled to any asteroid resource or space resource obtained, including to possess, own, transport, use and sell the asteroid resource or space resource obtained in accordance with applicable law, including the international obligations of the United States.
This codifies a principal well-recognized by many authorities on space law since the passage of the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies of 1967, better known as the Outer Space Treaty. The Outer Space Treaty bars governments from claiming sovereignty over "celestial bodies," which arguably does not include asteroids small enough to move into position for mining. Most scholars, however, have long recognized that the exploitation of outer space, even of "celestial bodies," has never been forbidden to private actors.
In his USA Today column, Professor Glenn Reynolds discusses the significance of this new law:
On the one hand, it was probably legal for Americans to do this already: The 1967 Outer Space Treaty prohibits "national appropriation" of the moon and other "celestial bodies." It says nothing about private property rights. Although there are some who argue otherwise, it seems pretty clear, as Hofstra law professor Julian Ku recently pointed out, that the Outer Space Treaty doesn’t prohibit private entities, or even governments, from exploiting space resources so long as they don’t claim sovereignty. (Andrew Tingkang has argued, convincingly, that asteroids small enough to move aren’t even "celestial bodies" under the Outer Space Treaty and thus aren’t covered at all, but the new law doesn’t take that position.)
Now, investors don’t have to worry about whether they’ll plow millions (or billions) into a space mining company only to be told later that they broke the law. And there are quite a few companies out there who are interested because the riches on offer are tremendous. Asteroid 3554 Amun is estimated to contain $20 trillion worth of minerals, enough to pay off the
U.S. national debt. On a smaller scale, a 79-foot-across asteroidcould contain 33,000 tons of extractable metals, including $50 million in platinum. Plus, many asteroids contain large quantities of carbon, oxygen and water, all useful for supporting operations in outer space.
While some commentators have expressed concern over what they see as conflict with international law, the legislation was lauded by major players in the private space-exploration sector. George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic (a major player in the private space-exploration sector), had this to say:
The U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act addresses many of the major policy hurdles facing our sector since the last update of the CSLA in 2004. Congress has recognized the importance of pioneering policies that keep up with the rapid innovation of the commercial space industry. Virgin Galactic greatly appreciates New Mexico’s support, and thanks the members of Congress for their hard work on this legislation. We look forward to expanding Earth’s economic sphere outward in a safe, reusable and reliable way[.]