As civilians prepare to venture into space, are earthly problems like property disputes, health and safety nightmares, and crime sure to follow? Enter the 'space lawyers’, reports Edward Helmore. (RT @Telegraph: Who owns the moon?
In October 2018, a 1,600ft-wide asteroid named Bennu will pass Earth, close enough for Nasa to land a spacecraft on it. Five years later, the craft will return to Earth carrying rock samples that could tell us exactly how planets are formed. But the mission, dubbed OSIRIS-REx, has another purpose: to lay the groundwork for the development of an asteroid-mining industry. Nasa has competition, though. Last year, a group of private investors (among them Google executives Larry Pageand Eric Schmidt) formed a company called Planetary Resources, with the intention of mining asteroids for valuable minerals. But before Nasa, or anybody else, starts mining on Bennu, the Moon, or any other celestial body, a few questions need to be answered. Does anyone actually have the right to profit from space rocks? And if something should go wrong up there, far from Earth-bound laws, who is responsible? This is where “space lawyers” come in.
Space is still the new frontier, and like any frontier it’s a potentially lawless environment. But since the Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957 there’s been an ongoing effort to draft treaties, establish jurisdiction and evolve a body of space law.
As the private sector – particularly Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic– looks toward commercial activity in space, from tourism to exploration, the ensuing legal minefield will be tough to navigate. And if there’s one person who knows what they’re talking about in this rapidly expanding area of law, it’s likely to be Joanne Gabrynowicz, professor of space law at the University of Mississippi, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Space Law (“a journal devoted to space law and the legal problems arising out of human activities in outer space”) and official observer for the International Institute of Space Law to the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space Legal Subcommittee.
On any given week, Gabrynowicz can be found far from home. Last week, it was Virginia, a centre for the growing privatised space sector in the United States; this week it’s Beijing for the 64th International Astronautical Congress.
More than 20 years ago, Gabrynowicz left a legal career in Manhattan to teach space law at the University of North Dakota. She’s now the leading expert in a field that’s expanding as the number of countries and private firms looking for new ways to utilise the vast wilderness of space grows. But what of the legal aspects of space mining? Apollo astronauts gathering a few moon rocks (842lb of lunar material, to be exact) is one thing, but space mining is another.