The US Senate has approved a bill allowing private companies to drill celestial body in order to extract and market raw materials.
"Les Echos", Marion Degeorge
"Les Echos", Marion Degeorge
Are resources from outer space, like water, platinum, and other materials in self-service? In the United States, the Senate has approved a text called the "2015 Space Act", which allows private companies to take property of raw materials they extract from celestial objects.
The bill has still some way to run before being presented to Barack Obama, as the document shall get the approval of the House of Representatives, which is highly likely, predicts the Popular Science website.
Planetary resources, a specialized company, takes it for granted, as the corporation is one of those hoping to extract raw materials from asteroids. While the text is still in draft form, the company has warmly welcome the approval given by the Congress.
Describing this initiative as "historic", the co-chairman of Planetary Resources, Eric Anderson says that "this legislation will settle a framework similar to the regulations which have supported the major economies of history". Is a new industry in the pipe?
The Outer Space Treaty
Space is not above the law. In January 1967, the United States and the USSR in particular, signed the "Outer Space Treaty". In October, the US Congress ratified this treaty unanimously before it came into effect in October. In 1970, France signed the document.
"This treaty is the legal basis of space law. One of its great principles is that no nation can claim ownership in space, as states Article 2, "says Philippe Achilleas, a law lecturer and director of the Space Law Institute.
If this treaty made sense during the Cold War, today the United States shows wider ambitions. In 2004, in a speech on the Space Program, George W. Bush first spoke of this right of non-appropriation and expressed his ambition to adapt this basic principle to present concerns. "It is clear that the Americans are encouraging private companies to take their share in the conquest of space, that is to say, to ensure their rights, including property," analyzes Philippe Achilleas.
How to bypass the Space treaty
By authorizing the use of space resources through its "Space Act", Washington bypasses the Outer Space Treaty. And to do that, "the country has got two legal levers," explains Philippe Achilleas.
First, the United States may advance that the non-appropriation principle applies to governments only and not to companies. "This way is wrong », argues the law lecturer, since the term" national ownership " applies to every nation, their nationals included."
Otherwise, the US can play on the distinction between non-ownership of the premises and the resources located there. "Even if we work on the moon, the moon is not ours. This is the same principle on the high seas where you can catch fish without having to own the territory where you are fishing. "
What are other nations’ position?
With their unilateral action, the United States mainly intends to "take the debate a step further," said Philippe Achilleas. In April yearly, the UN convenes a Committee for peaceful use of space, in order to discuss legal issues.
According to Philippe Achilleas, it will be in April 2016 that the US "Space Act" will be discussed globally. Nevertheless, it’s expected that Washington will remain silent, as "the US policy consists in not launching international debate by all possible means," suggests the space law lecturer.
For its part, France "is not hostile, it is not an issue on which the country will oppose," he considers. In fact, Paris simply expects the United States to launch space drilling, then to follow the Americans afterwards. Moreover, "other major space powers are not going to oppose the United States' either », he predicted. Indeed, "if Europe were able to allow drilling for commercial purposes, Europe would support the American decision."
In contrast, "developing countries are very concerned about US position," and it's likely they fight it fiercely. However the UN peaceful use of space Committee has not "normative dynamics," says Philippe Achilleas, as its aims consists in dialoguing but not making decisions or implementing regulations ».
Is there anything to be expected?
By regulating on its own part, Washington acts similarly to what has been decided about territories without any owner already. "That’s the case of maritime law », observes Philippe Achilleas. "States have implemented national regulations, which finally have ruled internationally. The same evolution is to be expected in the field of outer space"
“50 years ago, when the race for power on space begun, the various protagonists intended not to spoil outer space as they spoilt the Earth “, reminds Philippe Achilleas. But when easing its regulation about companies and outer space, the United States advocates for space exploration, and colonization in the end.
As such, it seems hard to stand for the idea that the errors made on earth won’t happen in space. « Finally, the desire for space conservation was quickly forgotten", laments Philippe Achilleas.
The ethics of space operations
According to Jacques Arnould, ethics project manager at CNES (National Institute for Space Studies), the US decision enshrines a quite warring policy, if not aggressive."
The 1967 Treaty defined space as a "mankind common heritage", but this status is not compatible with economic operations from private companies. For this specialist, that status is now "very threatened" and "it is not sure that we are aware of this threat neither that we are able to cope with it."
But "space is not beyond law”, he recalls. "Since 50 years, space regulation has built milestones. But Washington's decision puts other nations in face of a fait accompli ».
> "We can never directly address to private companies, which may drill an asteroid and market the resources tomorrow, but the United States, as a sovereign nation, shall be compelled to justify their decision to the international community," states Jacques Arnould .
> But "shall public opinion be able to question Washington’s unilateral decision? "And" to what extent would international community be able to prevent such practice? ", he says. Today in space law, there is no precedent.
> And there is no "space peace troops" able to verify the application of the law. " In fact, "we do not have the means to implement this policy, but this policy does exist," he argues. "We should be able to make at least one arrest. As sovereign nations, we should be able to question our American colleagues, telling them: "what are you doing? '".
> Space exploration, and the International Space Station (ISS) especially, are the vivid proof that nations are able "to work together across borders." In orbit, the US and Russia are able to work, he notes, for example. "Space has forced us to work hand in hand, and Washington’s decision totally opposes this way of working," he regrets.