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Asteroid mining
An artist’s concept shows a spacecraft mining an asteroid. (Credit: Bryan Versteeg / Deep Space Industries)

President Barack Obama today put his signature on a law supporting the rights of space miners to extract, use and sell resources from asteroids, the moon, Mars and other celestial bodies – giving space-minded entrepreneurs something extra to be thankful for.

“This is the single greatest recognition of property rights in history,” Eric Anderson, co-founder and co-chairman of Redmond-based Planetary Resources, said in a news release. “This legislation establishes the same supportive framework that created the great economies of history, and will encourage the sustained development of space.”

Anderson’s company has said the asteroid mining industry could eventually grow to trillions of dollars a year – but that’s dependent on the establishment of a spacefaring infrastructure that can use the off-earth water and other raw materials from near-Earth asteroids.

It’s also dependent on the establishment a legal infrastructure that lets miners keep what they get. That’s what the newly signed law, known as the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (H.R.2262), is expected to start doing.

The law addresses nearer-term issues as well: It extends the current “learning period” for the regulation of private-sector spaceships such as Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo and Blue Origin’s New Shepard to 2023; confirms that the International Space Station should stay in operation until at least 2024; and continues the indemnification of commercial space launches through 2025.

But it’s the legislation’s implications for space property rights that have stirred up the most attention among lawmakers as well as entrepreneurs.

“The natural resources of our solar system have great potential to facilitate and support our human endeavors, both in outer space and on Earth,” U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican who chairs the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, said in a statement. “Commercial space companies in the United States are making significant investments to develop technical capabilities that will allow us to explore and use outer space resources. This bill enables this new industry and provides guidance for future entrepreneurs.”

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.” And U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., said the law would give Washington state’s space ventures “the framework they need to continue to innovate, and to keep the United States at the head of this growing, global industry.”

Hannah Kerner, executive director of the Space Frontier Foundation, said the newly signed law “extends our free-market values into space, which is absolutely essential if we are going to succeed at creating an environment where commercial space businesses thrive.”

Planetary Resources has been testing prototypes for spacecraft that can identify and eventually extract materials from near-Earth asteroids, including a mini-satellite that’s due to be deployed next year. But it’s not the only company in the space mining business. Another such venture is Deep Space Industries, which also issued a statement praising today’s signing.

“In the future, humanity will look back at this bill being passed as one of the hallmarks of the opening of space to the people,” Deep Space Industries’ chairman, Rick Tumlinson, said in the statement. “Even while surrounded by so much bad news, in the long view of history, it is this sort of positive action that changes civilization, and while much else will not be remembered, the time when we began to unlock the wealth of the solar system for the people of Earth will be seen as a turning point. This bill is an important key to that happening.”

The bill was written to sidestep the larger issue of claiming sovereignty over other celestial bodies – which would be forbidden under the terms of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. Instead, it establishes a legal right to resources that a U.S. citizen may recover in space, consistent with current U.S. law and the United States’ international obligations.

It calls upon the president to outline how the government will handle space resource rights, in a report to be submitted to Congress within 180 days.

Although the discussion has focused on near-Earth asteroids, the law also applies to resources on other celestial bodies. That fact wasn’t lost on Naveen Jain, the Seattle-area entrepreneur who’s the founder and executive chairman of Moon Express. His company plans to send private-sector spacecraft to the moon, potentially winning a share of the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize in the process.

Jain told GeekWire that today’s signing is “a great milestone for Moon Express and the entire private commerce industry.”

“I am super excited that we now have clarity for Moon Express to be able to harvest and own lunar resources that can be used for the benefit of humanity,” he said in an email. “The moon is our sister planet that has an incredible amount of natural resources, including helium-3 that can provide for clean energy for many generations for the entire planet.”

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