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International 'legal certainty' needed on space mining

International 'legal certainty' needed on space mining

2 min. 31.10.2017 From our online archive
A senior researcher at the Leuven Centre for Global Governance Studies in Belgium advocates for legal certainty around space mining in light of Luxembourg's and the US' national laws governing private exploration of space resources.

Private ownership of space resources should be decided by international law, an academic has said, questioning the national approaches taken by the Luxembourg and US governments.

Luxembourg made international headlines last July when the Chamber of Deputies passed a law, making it the first European country to regulate space exploration.

At the time, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Economy, Etienne Schneider said in a statement that Luxembourg was "the first adopter in Europe of a legal and regulatory framework recognising that space resources are capable of being owned by private companies".

In a letter to the Financial Times, Philip De Man, Senior Researcher at the Leuven Centre for Global Governance Studies in Belgium, argued more legal certainty is required.

The appropriation of resources extracted from space – an area without defined boundaries – is subject to international treaties. 

The Outer Space Treaty

To date, the 1967 United Nations Outer Space Treaty is the only existing international agreement, ratified by over 100 countries, and forms the basis of international space law.

De Man, who is also a member of the Belgian delegation to the Legal Subcommittee of the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, said that the ban on "national appropriation" in the 1967 Treaty extends to private property rights as well.

The question is whether "the ban also extends to natural resources of celestial bodies, which are neither explicitly included in nor excluded from its scope," he wrote.

He also opened the debate on whether "an undertaking that [...] requires an international market can ever be provided through a national framework".

According to De Man, the Luxembourg legislator dropped a reference to international law in the text of the national legislation on space resources.

The text of the law was changed from “space resources are capable of being appropriated under international law” to simply “space resources are capable of being appropriated”.

The Grand-Duchy is the only European state to have followed in the footsteps of the US, which through the Space Act of 2015 guaranteed private company rights to own, sell and make profits off resources extracted from the outer space.

In his letter to the editor, De Man recalled that in 2016, when the Belgian delegation introduced the agenda item on space resources at the United Nations, the only countries that thought "it was too early for an international approach were precisely the US and Luxembourg".

'National appropriation'

De Man added that for some, this can be explained by an inconsistency in the two states' national and international positions, whereas "those more cynical will read into it a perverse intention to 'interpret' the ban on 'national appropriation' as [...] not extending to natural resources, expecting that the practice of those few that can will be given more weight than the proactive of the vast majority that cannot".

He ended the letter by saying that "commercial interests are rewriting the lofty proclamations on the use of outer space 'for the benefits and in the interests of all countries', to serve the interests of a few.”

Despite the criticism of its approach, Luxembourg is making steady progress on its quest to become a space mining hub.

In November 2016, the government signed a €25m investment and cooperation agreement with Planetary Resources, becoming a stakeholder in the US asteroid mining company. At the time, it was announced that the funding would be used for the exploration and commercial use of resources from Near Earth Objects (NEOs) such as asteroids.

(Roxana Mironescu,, +352 4993 748)