Could Obama’s small step for space law be a giant leap for wannabe space solicitors?

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By Katie King on

Asteroid mining is now legal, potentially opening up a new work stream for corporate lawyers


The American President has signed a major new law this week which gives US citizens property rights over asteroids — and it looks like the UK may follow suit.

US companies and citizens will now be able to claim legal rights over materials that they harvest from celestial bodies, but cannot claim the celestial body itself.

Until this week, space law has been largely governed by the Outer Space Treaty. Formally the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, the agreement entered into force in 1967 and has been signed by 104 countries, including the UK and the USA.

The main thrust of the Treaty is that space cannot be owned by a country. Speaking in 2012, Joanne Wheeler, then from CMS Cameron McKenna and now a partner at Bird & Bird, explained:

The Outer Space Treaty says the moon and celestial bodies such as asteroids are not subject to national appropriation. Whether that means no one owns the asteroids, or we all do under some common heritage, what’s clear here is there is no state sovereignty over them.

In 2012, debate began to simmer across the Atlantic about whether US law should recognise off-planet land claims. American-based think tank Competitive Enterprise Institute argued that the 1967 agreement only prohibits declarations of national sovereignty. The Moon Treaty 1979 does outlaw private property claims in space — but the USA is not a signatory (and neither is the UK, by the way).

And now it’s official: the US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act has legalised mining asteroids and other celestial bodies for their resources.

Unsurprisingly, asteroid mining company Planetary Resources is thrilled. Eric Anderson, co-founder and co-chairman, said of the Act:

This is the single greatest recognition of property rights in history… This legislation establishes the same supportive framework that created the great economies of history, and will encourage the sustained development of space.

Other companies set to benefit include SpaceX, Deep Space Industries, and Orbital Sciences, which have previously been advised by Hogan Lovells.

While it sounds the stuff of science fiction, these outer space rocks are potentially big business — in July, a rock reportedly worth £3.5 trillion passed the Earth.

Business is expected to start by the 2020s — but will the UK follow suit? Senior lecturer in international commercial law at Kent University Gbenga Oduntan thinks it may well do. He told The Conversation:

We can assume that the list of states that have access to outer space — currently a dozen or so — will grow. These states may also shortly respond with mining programmes of their own.

Just when you thought property law couldn’t get any harder…