Does NASA Have the Right to Sell Moon-Mining Permits? (Poll)

This is important stuff to think about, though we prefer asteroid mining to lunar mining.

Higher Learning

The Lunar Cargo Transportation and Landing by Soft Touchdown program or CATALYST as it is often called, is taking the first steps towards exploring the moon for valuable resources.

A number of private companies have submitted applications to NASA, who will pick one or more of the applicants to build “prospecting robots” that will search the moon for valuable resources that are rare on Earth.

With their budget uncertain (the portion of the federal budget appropriated to NASA has declined pretty steadily since the early 90s), NASA has been trying creative ways to obtain funding for their continued research and space exploration- the CATALYST program being the latest example.

Image: NASA Image: NASA

However, the United Nations’ 1967 Outer Space Treaty explicitly prohibits any one country from laying claim to the moon. Naturally, CATALYST has sparked a fierce debate about lunar property rights, discussed in more depth in this National Geographic article.

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7 thoughts on “Does NASA Have the Right to Sell Moon-Mining Permits? (Poll)”

  1. Countries do have the right to exploit lunar resources. And private companies also have the right to exploit lunar resources under the supervision of their countries of origin. However, the the Moon is the legal property of the people of the Earth. And, by international law, they have to be compensated if they their property is exploited for financial gain– just like the people of Alaska are financially compensated by the oil companies for drilling on government lands.

    If the Obama administration is serious about private space then they should be submitting amendments to the Outer Space Treaty that would specify what this financial compensation should be.

    Marcel

    1. “Countries do have the right to exploit lunar resources. And private companies also have the right to exploit lunar resources under the supervision of their countries of origin.”

      Though it’s clear that nations have a right to peacefully explore the Moon, it’s less clear whether they have also have a right to exploit lunar resources, at least under the Outer Space Treaty.

      “However, the the Moon is the legal property of the people of the Earth.”

      This is not entirely true, the OST states that the Moon is common heritage of mankind, a vague principle prohibiting unilateral appropriation of the Moon by someone but it does not make the Moon “legal property” of the people of Earth. Such a statement would cause all kind of confusion since different nations define property in different terms, and hence property is not a concept with a uniform understanding.

      “And, by international law, they have to be compensated if they their property is exploited for financial gain”

      First property is a concept defined by domestic law, not international law. Second such a compensation principle, though this would make sense morally, is not a part of international law, but only of domestic law if at all.

      If the Obama administration is serious about private space then they should be submitting amendments to the Outer Space Treaty that would specify what this financial compensation should be.

      Given that the outer space treaty only applies to those states who are party to this treaty, it’s more likely that if the US government has serious plans involving lunar mining, the US government would simply cancel its membership of the OST.

      1. The Outer Space Treaty states the following:

        The Outer Space Treaty states:

        Article 11

        1. The Moon and its natural resources are the common heritage of mankind, which finds its expression in the provisions of this Agreement, in particular in paragraph 5 of this article.

        2. The Moon is not subject to national appropriation by any claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.

        3. Neither the surface nor the subsurface of the Moon, nor any part thereof or natural resources in place, shall become property of any State, international intergovernmental or non-governmental organization, national organization or non-governmental entity or of any natural person. The placement of personnel, space vehicles, equipment, facilities, stations and installations on or below the surface of the Moon, including structures connected with its surface or subsurface, shall not create a right of ownership over the surface or the subsurface of the Moon or any areas thereof. The foregoing provisions are without prejudice to the international regime referred to in paragraph 5 of this article.

        4. States Parties have the right to exploration and use of the Moon without discrimination of any kind, on the basis of equality and in accordance with international law and the terms of this Agreement.

        5. States Parties to this Agreement hereby undertake to establish an international regime, including appropriate procedures, to govern the exploitation of the natural resources of the Moon as such exploitation is about to become feasible. This provision shall be implemented in accordance with article 18 of this Agreement.

        6. In order to facilitate the establishment of the international regime referred to in paragraph 5 of this article, States Parties shall inform the Secretary- General of the United Nations as well as the public and the international scientific community, to the greatest extent feasible and practicable, of any natural resources they may discover on the Moon.

        7. The main purposes of the international regime to be established shall include:

        (a) The orderly and safe development of the natural resources of the Moon;

        (b) The rational management of those resources;

        (c) The expansion of opportunities in the use of those resources;

        (d) An equitable sharing by all States Parties in the benefits derived
        from those resources, whereby the interests and needs of the developing countries, as well as the efforts of those countries which have contributed either directly or indirectly to the exploration of the Moon, shall be given special consideration.

        1. Thanks for sharing this.

          A few remarks:

          Paragraph 1 states that the Moon is common heritage of mankind, it does NOT state it’s property of the people of earth. None of the other paragraphs supports the reading the common heritage of mankind to mean property of the people of earth. In light of paragraph 2 we can derive that common heritage of mankind means that no one can unilaterally appropriate the Moon or parts of it.

          Paragraph 2 clearly prohibits the US government or NASA to sell mining licenses to anyone, without permission of the international agency mentioned in paragraph 6 and ruled by paragraph 7.

          From paragraphs 4 and 5 we can derive that nations can explore the Moon without discrimination, however exploitation of resources is far more restricted and require approval of the international community. Hence we can’t say that nations have a right to exploit lunar resources, even if some compensation is paid. Though such compensation might be established as a part of the regime mentioned by paragraphs 6 and 7. But only with agreement of the international community.

          Paragraphs 4 and 5 suggests that states which aren’t parties to this treaty are also not bound by its provisions. Hence if a state party would withdraw from the treaty, none of the provisions of this treaty can be used against that state.

    1. Another commenter had been so friendly to cite article 11 of the outer space treaty, which does support your point of view. I guess you should give a look at that comment.

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