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Asteroid mining
An artist’s conception shows an asteroid being mined by swarms of robots. (Credit: Planetary Resources)

After months of consideration, Congress is finishing up work on legislation that establishes legal rights for U.S. citizens to own resources in outer space – a key requirement for asteroid mining ventures like Planetary Resources.

“Many years from now, we will view this pivotal moment in time as a major step toward humanity becoming a multiplanetary species,” Eric Anderson, co-founder and co-chairman of the Redmond-based company, said today in a statement. “This legislation establishes the same supportive framework that created the great economies of history, and it will foster the sustained development of space.”

The legislation also extends the regulatory “learning period” for commercial spaceflight ventures through 2023, confirms that the International Space Station should stay in operation through 2024, and extends indemnification of commercial launches through 2025.

The Senate and House passed different versions of the legislation, known as H.R. 2262 and S. 1297, earlier this year – but it took until today for the Senate to pass an amendment that incorporates provisions agreed upon by both houses of Congress. The measure was sent back to the House for final passage, and if the legislation is approved as expected, it will be sent onward to the White House for President Barack Obama to sign into law.

The provisions about property rights were of highest interest to Planetary Resources, which is working to identify and mine near-Earth asteroids that are rich in potentially valuable materials. Such mining operations could provide drinkable water, breathable oxygen, rocket fuel and building supplies for future space explorers. Some have even talked about harvesting platinum-group metals and sending them back to Earth.

Planetary Resources’ president and chief engineer, Chris Lewicki, said the legislation addresses ownership issues that have been the subject of speculation and debate for decades. The measure establishes a legal right to resources that a U.S. citizen may recover in space, consistent with current law and the United States’ international obligations – for example, under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.

“It’s really recognizing that this is an emerging industry, and as with any emerging industry, you need a supportive political environment and a framework,” he told GeekWire. “Now we can build from here.”

Planetary Resources’ next spacecraft prototype, an Earth-observing satellite known as the Arkyd 6, is due to go into orbit on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket early next year. If all goes according to plan, asteroid resource extraction could begin “in the first half of the 2020s,” Lewicki said.

Lawmakers lined up to praise the legislation in their own prepared statements. U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said she was “proud that local businesses are once again at the forefront of new industries that will help our economy continue to grow.” U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., said “the commercial space industry in Washington state is leading the way in developing the cutting-edge technology necessary to support human space exploration.”

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican who’s running for president, said the legislation “solidifies America’s leading role in the commercial space sector and builds upon the work of President Reagan.” (Note: Cruz’s home state corrected since original post.)

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