Race to make space laws before asteroid mining starts and it becomes wild west

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As yet, no-one has committed a crime in space – but someone came close in 2019.

Then Summer Worden, the wife of NASA astronaut Anne McClain, claimed that the former US Army engineer had illegally hacked her bank account from a computer on the International Space Station.

The claims were disproven, and the two women subsequently divorced. But with more and more people making their way into orbit every year it’s only a matter of time before the first outer-space crime is committed.

The first attempt to draft a set of laws governing space travellers dates back almost 30 years before the first manned space flight. A Czech legal expert published a book about the problems space travel might represent for lawyers.

Most efforts at creating a universal set of laws for off-world activities have centred on property law and mineral rights – for example, a NASA bid to capture an asteroid and place it in lunar orbit sparked a major debate about who owns celestial objects.

After all, with the value of some asteroids estimated to be in the trillions of dollars, it’s a question we need to resolve.

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has predicted that the Earth’s first trillionaire will be “the person who exploits the natural resources” on them.

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For example, one massive iron asteroid that was probably once the core of a dead planet could make someone incredibly rich – or end all life on Earth.

The asteroid, called 16 Psyche, is thought to contain deposits of iron worth around £8,000 quadrillion.

Theoretically, if 16 Psyche could be mined and its iron retrieved, the value of the metal could be divided between the world’s eight billion people to make every man, woman and child on the planet a billionaire.

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Or, equally, any attempt to bring the multi-trillion-dollar space rock down to Earth could result in a planet-killing catastrophe on a par with the event that saw off the dinosaurs.

NASA are currently working with Elon Musk to design a probe that can land on 16 Psyche, remove a small section, and return it to the Earth for analysis.

There’s another set of international agreements covering the legality of weapons in space. A 1967 Outer Space Treaty signed by most of the major world powers bans military bases, weapons testing and military manoeuvres on other heavenly bodies.

However it doesn’t go as far as banning all military activity in space, and the recent anti-satellite weapons tests from Russia and China show that the law doesn’t really stretch very far beyond the Earth at all.

John Logsdon, founder of the Space Policy Institute and professor emeritus at George Washington University, says that there are no meaningful laws in space at all.

He said: “The governing structure for space activities is way out of date and doesn’t reflect today's realities in space.

“There are no rules. There’s no space traffic regime or control. [There are] thousands of objects in space – satellites and space debris. It’s a wild environment up there with things shooting around and no traffic management to make sure they don’t collide with one another.”

Paul Kostek, a space policy specialist from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers , says that the next phase of space exploration, with prospectors competing to claim the next valuable asteroid, threatens to turn space into a “new wild west”.

“It really is the wild wild west, or in this case the wild wild space,' he said. "What is all of that going to mean, how are people even going to manage space?”

  • Elon Musk
  • Nasa
  • Asteroids
  • Space
  • Military
  • China
  • Russia
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