The U.S. Senate this week unanimously passed the Space Act of 2015 (Extraterrestrial 'Finders Keepers' law), which grants U.S. citizens or corporations the right to legally claim non-living natural resources—including water and minerals. Commercial operations could reap trillions of dollars from mining precious metals like platinum, common metallic elements such as iron, and water, the “oil of space.”
“Many years from now, we will view this pivotal moment in time as a major step toward humanity becoming a multi-planetary species,” Eric Anderson, co-founder of asteroid mining company Planetary Resources, said in apress release. “This legislation establishes the same supportive framework that created the great economies of history, and it will foster the sustained development of space.”
Planetary Resources president and chief engineer Chris Lewicki added: "Throughout history, governments have spurred growth in new frontiers by instituting sensible legislation. Long ago, The Homestead Act of 1862 advocated for the search for gold and timber, and today, H.R. 2262 fuels a new economy that will open many avenues for the continual growth and prosperity of humanity. This off-planet economy," he said, "will forever change our lives for the better here on Earth."
“Recognizing basic legal protections in space will help pave the way for exciting future commercial space endeavors,” Congressman Posey said in a prepared statement. “Asteroids and other objects in space are excellent potential sources of rare minerals and other resources that can be used to manufacture a wide range of products here on Earth and to support future space exploration missions.”
Now, where have we heard all that before?
However, while agencies can set up private mines and legally claim any resources recovered, international law states that government nor private organisations can claim extraterrestrial land. The Moon Treaty, Article 11, 3, states:
“Neither the surface nor the subsurface of the moon, nor any part thereof or natural resources in place, shall become property of any State, international intergovernmental or non-governmental organization, national organization or non-governmental entity or of any natural person.”
Along with Britain, France, and Russia, the U.S. is a signatory to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which reads in part: "Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means."
Handing out the right to exploit chunks of space to your citizens sounds very much like a claim of sovereignty. Congress is saying to these companies, 'Go get these rights and we’ll defend you,' and at the same time saying, 'We're making no sovereign claim of ownership'. The bottom line is before you can give somebody the right to harvest a resource you have to have ownership.