Who owns outer space? And what happens when corporations want to extract resources from asteroids or planets?

David Barnett examines the next big land grab

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The Independent Online

There was never a territory in human history that someone didn't think they could own or make money out of. And that goes for outer space as well – in fact, it has done for the best part of 60 years.

The plaque left by the first manned mission to the Moon in 1969 declared that Neil Armstrong and crew had "come in peace for all mankind". It was the stars and stripes that was planted firmly in the lunar dust, though – and while that was little more than Cold War posturing rather than any serious claim to the Moon, the vexing question of whether we can actually own space and what's in it has been discussed at the very highest levels since the mid-1950s.

Dr Jill Stuart heads up space policy at the London School of Economics, and yesterday delivered a lecture at the British Science Festival in Bradford aimed at answering that very question. As she says, "After the Second World War when rocket technology developed, it became very clear by the 1950s that a man-made satellite would be launched into orbit pretty soon. The space race was a way for the US and Soviet governments to compete and to flex their muscles."

So serious were the Americans and Russians about how space was going to be divided up that they both actually went to the United Nations to set in place some legal infrastructure for when the inevitable colonisation began.

"Why bother going to do that?" says Stuart. "Why not just leave it lawless? Both governments felt that they couldn't control outer space, but it was in their interests to lock the other side into a legal agreement in case the other party found a way to do so."

There were two Earth-bound analogies discussed. The first, favoured by the US, was the law of the high seas, whereby vessels are registered at a port of origin but the oceans themselves are international and free. The USSR, on the other hand, wanted to adopt the airspace argument – that whatever was above your country was yours, heading out to infinity and beyond. And there was a very good reason for that, says Stuart: "At the time the USSR was less open than the US, so they had a lot to lose if satellites flew over their territory, in terms of potential spying activities."

In the end, the high seas course was adopted, thanks to the Russians effectively scuppering themselves by launching Sputnik 1 in 1957, which crossed other states' airspaces as it orbited the Earth.

In 1967, the Outer Space Treaty was drawn up to regulate international space law. It's one of five treaties governing space but, while the 1967 agreement had 103 countries signed up, the most recent – the 1979 Moon Treaty – has found less favour. And that's because it's not about political chest-beating but making hard cash from outer space. Explains Stuart: "It tries to address the ownership of resources obtained from outer space, and really it was pretty much rejected by the international community."

So are we likely to see a galactic land-grab in the near future, as mining companies stake their claims on the Moon? "Not so much the Moon," says Stuart. "The major likely resource there is helium. We're more going to see companies targeting asteroids and comets which are rich in precious metals and minerals."

It's the business side of things – along with commercial spaceflights, such as SpaceX and Virgin Galactic – which is muddying the waters. "The treaties were designed to regulate nation states," says Waters. "But corporations are not countries. So if a company mines an asteroid and brings those resources back to Earth, who do they belong to? The country from which the rocket was launched? The corporation that sent it up? Then there's the liability aspect – if a commercial space flight takes off from the US and something goes wrong, who is to blame? The country... or the corporation?"

While commercial space flights will be a reality soon – for those who have the £150,000 for the price of a ticket on Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic sub-orbital flights – mining asteroids might take a while longer. "Will we see it in my lifetime?" says Stuart says. "I don't know. But the cost of getting there has to be factored against the value of any resources obtained."

Nasa says a space shuttle launch costs $450m per mission on average. But that hasn't stopped companies making plans for asteroid mining – among them Planetary Resources, a company formed in 2010 for the express purposes of robotically mining asteroids, not just for precious minerals but for water – since, they say: "Water from asteroids will fuel the in-space economy and habitation, by creating rocket fuel and consumable water from space, for space."

One of Planetary Resources' advisers is the director James Cameron, whose 2009 film Avatar posited a future where humanity mines alien worlds for new resources. Given that Avatar is essentially a warning against imperialism and riding roughshod over fragile eco-systems for profit, we can only hope our future exploitation of the final frontier will be tempered with lessons learnt here on Earth.

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