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To Infinity and Beyond: The Future Environmental Laws Governing Near-Earth Asteroid Mining

To Infinity and Beyond: The Future Environmental Laws Governing Near-Earth Asteroid Mining

Erin C. Bennett

“Asteroids are lumps of metals, rock and dust, sometimes laced with ice and tar, which are the cosmic leftovers from the Solar System’s formation about 4.5 billion years ago.”[1] Most of the asteroids in the Solar System are located between Mars and Jupiter in a grouping known as the Main Asteroid Belt.[2]  However, numerous asteroids—ranging in size and shape—exist near Earth’s atmosphere.[3] In fact, smaller asteroids tend to be “house-sized,” and those fragments, while considered small, are predicted to contain metals worth millions of dollars.  Needless to say, the larger the asteroid, the larger the accumulation of precious metals. Due to commercial mining, such metals exist in scarce quantities on Earth.[4] Therefore, the era of near-Earth asteroid mining is upon us.

Asteroid mining is the exploitation of raw materials from asteroids—also known as planetoids—and other minor planets, including near-Earth objects.[5]  These raw materials include precious metals, such as gold and silver.  In 2015, with terrestrial natural resources slowly diminishing, then President Barack Obama signed into law the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act.[6]  As applied, this Act prohibits the private or public sector ownership of an asteroid.[7]  However, a private or public entity—should it develop the means by which to mine in space—may legally possess any natural resource it can extract from said asteroid.[8]  The passing of this Act paves the way for private and public organizations that already had their sights set on near-Earth asteroids for purposes of precious metal and natural resource extraction.[9]

Of course, extracting a surplus of minerals—some perhaps unknown to mankind—from a space rock near Earth’s atmosphere raises many red flags, including how nations, specifically the United States, will alter current laws and regulations to bolster environmental protection.  To some, the benefits of near-Earth asteroid mining greatly outweigh the burdens, such as the negative environmental impacts.[10]  To others, this is not the case.[11]  The key concern amongst environmentalists is air quality.[12]  Currently, mining burdens Earth’s air quality with hazards such as fly ash, bottom ash, and flue-gas desulfurization.[13]  Asteroid mining near Earth’s atmosphere will introduce an abundance of new environmental matters, requiring the United States to refine its current environmental laws or create anew.[14]

Part I of this Note will address the history of natural resource mining and the original laws governing such endeavors.  The Note will then transition into outer space laws and their impacts on near-Earth asteroid mining, focusing primarily on the Outer Space Treaty, the Moon Treaty, and the Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects.  Finally, this Note will analyze applicable existing United States laws and what these laws mean for near-Earth asteroid mining.

Currently, existing United States environmental Laws, such as the National Environmental Policy Act, The Clean Air Act, and the Noise Pollution Control Act are not sufficient to handle the incoming environmental effects of asteroid mining.  This Note explores the intricacies of the relationship between current environmental regulation and a new frontier.

Questions and inquiries regarding this Note may be forwarded to the author at LawReview@vermontlaw.edu.


[1] William Steigerwald, New NASA Mission to Help Us Learn How to Mine Asteroids, Nasa (Aug. 8, 2013), https://www.nasa.gov/content/goddard/new-nasa-mission-to-help-us-learn-how-to-mine-asteroids (internal quotations omitted).

[2] Nola Taylor Redd, Asteroid Belt: Facts & Formation, Space.com (June 11, 2012) http://www.space.com/16105-asteroid-belt.html.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Shane D. Ross, Near-Earth Asteroid Mining 1 (2001).

[6] U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, 51 U.S.C. § 10101 (2015).

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Sarah Cruddas, Could the Untold Riches in Asteroids and Other Planets Be the Key to Exploring the Wider Universe?, BBC News (Jan. 5, 2016), http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20160103-the-truth-about-asteroid-mining .

[11] Rocket Launches May Need Regulation to Prevent Ozone Depletion, Says New Study, University of Colorado Boulder (Mar. 31, 2009), http://www.colorado.edu/today/2009/03/31/rocket-launches-may-need-regulation-prevent-ozone-depletion-says-new-study [hereinafter Rocket Launches].

[12] Id.

[13] The Effects of Fly Ash and Flue-Gas Desulfuraization Wastes on Groundwater Quality in A Reclaimed Lignite Strip Mine Disposal Site, UW Digital Libraries, (last visited Oct. 24, 2016), http://uwdigital.uwyo.edu/islandora/object/wyu%3A3755.

[14] Rocket Launches, supra note 11.

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