The exploration of outer space potentially opens the door for the exploitation of resources beyond the Earth by the US and other nations. International law has addressed some of these issues, while US domestic law has provided additional, more specific rules. In response to the exploration of space, the United Nations issued a declaration preventing any nation from establishing ownership of any celestial body or area of space. Likewise, the UN has provided all nations on Earth with equal research rights in space.
The central instrument of international space law is the Outer Space Treaty, which took effect in 1967. Over 100 nations have ratified the treaty, including the US, while others have signed but not ratified it. The Outer Space Treaty does not allow any nation to appropriate a planet, moon, or other celestial resource by occupying or using it, or through any other means. The treaty does not address the rights of private parties to gather and sell outer space resources. However, it requires national governments to supervise any private launches in outer space by non-governmental entities, which must receive government authorization.
The International Space Station
Five participating space agencies (representing the US, Russia, Europe, Japan, and Canada) operate the International Space Station, which is a permanently inhabited artificial satellite in low earth orbit. The ISS is used for research and testing by 15 governments, which have signed the Space Station Intergovernmental Agreement. This treaty and subsequent agreements cover the rights and obligations of the parties involved in the ISS, applying principles of international law.
Exploiting resources in outer space requires substantial investments in research and development. The uncertainty surrounding property rights and the ability to protect these investments has made many companies reluctant to pursue activities on the moon or elsewhere in the solar system without explicit legal protections.
US Regulations Affecting Outer Space Resources
The Federal Aviation Administration has announced that it will protect the assets of private parties on the moon. Under this 2014 decision by the Office of the Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transport, US businesses will not face interference from other private parties licensed by the AST when conducting operations on the moon. Since the FAA and AST have no authority over private parties from other countries, a US company still could face interference from foreign, non-licensed companies. The AST is not an international licensing agency at this time, nor does any international licensing agency for activities in outer space exist.
A year after the AST decision, Congress enacted the US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act. This law applies to resources from asteroids, which are rocky objects that are much smaller than planets but orbit the sun similarly to planets. American individuals and entities received the right to own, possess, transport, use, or sell asteroids and resources developed from them.
Unequal Development and Space Royalties
Principles of international space law hold that everyone on Earth has a right to access and develop outer space. However, not every nation has the technical capacity to exercise the right. This raises the concern that nations with the capacity to develop outer space might monopolize its resources before other nations acquire the necessary capacity. Nations lacking capacity have urged that nations with capacity should pay royalties to them on profits from these activities received by government enterprises and private companies in their nations. This proposal has not gained broad support among nations such as the US.