The next gold rush might be the race for asteroids, and the nation-states that dominate this new industry may not be the usual suspects. After all, in space the amount of land you control on Earth is more or less irrelevant. Which is why the government of the world's last Grand Duchy is backing asteroid mining in a big way.
Asteroid mining company Deep Space Industries in partnership with the Luxembourg government's asteroid mining initiative Space Resources announced today that they would soon send a spacecraft into orbit to test some of the technology needed to extract resources like water or minerals from asteroids.
Prospector-X, as the spacecraft is known, will operate in low-Earth orbit, testing navigation, propulsion, and avionics technologies for the next generation of spacecraft, which might actually scout out asteroids for valuable resources. The spacecraft has a similar mission to the Arkyd 3 Reflight spacecraft that another asteroid mining company, Planetary Resources, launched from the International Space Station last year.
Luxembourg is aiming to be a leader in asteroid mining in Europe, but they aren't alone. Last November, President Obama signed the Space Act of 2015 giving mining companies the right to own resources they extract from asteroids, but not the asteroids themselves.
Luxembourg and the United States are betting heavily that asteroid mining counts as "use."
That's because the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 banned countries from putting weapons of mass destruction, nukes, or military bases in space, and also prohibited 'claims of sovereignty'. So, right now, no country can own an asteroid or part of a planetary body, and because "States shall be responsible for national space activities whether carried out by governmental or non-governmental entities;" governments aren't likely to look favorably on companies staking their sovereign claim to an asteroid or planet either.
There is a loophole. The treaty says that "outer space shall be free for exploration and use by all States". And Luxembourg and the United States are betting heavily that asteroid mining counts as "use."
They're also betting that other precedents apply. Luxembourg's Space Resources has an oft-touted analogy for the situation: fish. Their website offers this comparison "An example could be fishing in international waters. Fishermen don't own the water and they don't own the fish, but they have the right to put the nets into the water and bring the fish onto the decks, and once the fish are there, they own the fish."
But it isn't quite so cut and dry. Even if they aren't enforced well, or at all, there are regulations governing the fishing industry. Asteroid mining is a whole new world, and legal questions are still being grappled with, even as technology like Prospector-X lifts off.