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Western profs to explore laws and regulations for mining in outer space

A new project spearheaded by two Western University professors aims to address the gaps in regulation surrounding space mining and what it will mean for countries and companies with their eye on the field.

Science is currently outpacing policies around space mining, professor says

The increasing demand for non-renewable natural resources, has garnered deep interest by many countries across the world to the possibility of harvesting resources from asteroids, the moon and even Mars. (Shutterstock)

A new project spearheaded by two Western University professors aims to address the gaps in regulation surrounding space mining — and what this will mean for countries and companies that have their eye on the field.

The increasing demand for non-renewable natural resources has garnered deep interest by many countries worldwide to the possibility of harvesting resources from outer space.

Western University law professors Valerie Oosterveld and Elizabeth Steyn launched a research project to look into the laws governing space mining and whether or not international environmental law can be help address the lack of regulation in the emerging field.

Oosterveld, who is also a faculty member for the Institute of Earth and Space Exploration at Western, told CBC's London Morning there has been a recent push to capture asteroids to bring strategic minerals back to earth.

"Asteroids can contain a number of rare earth metals and these are considered strategically important because they are an integral part of manufacturing electronic devices, electric vehicle batteries and military equipment here on earth," she said.

Who can extract non-renewable natural resources?

Space mining of the moon, asteroids and even Mars is currently being considered, according to Oosterveld. They're among all of the different areas in which space technology is trying to advance in.

More than 80 per cent of the U.S.' rare earth metal imports are outsourced from China, Oosterveld said, and being able to extract these resources independently would be of high interest to the country. The U.S. has the most interest in the process, followed by China. Russia, the European Union, Japan, India, South Korea, Australia and Canada are also among the countries looking at the possibility of space mining.

The Outer Space Treaty, formally the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, is a treaty meant to form the basis of international space law.

Valerie Oosterveld, a Western University law professor and faculty member for the institute of earth and space exploration, says (Western University)

Oosterveld argues that the treaty, which was negotiated during the space race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the1960s, has "vague" overarching guidelines and requirements for countries that result in a problematic "grey area."

"Right now, the Outer Space Treaty says that all states in the world or all countries that are able to get into space can freely use and explore space — but they cannot assert property rights on the moon, for example," she said.

Oosterveld says it is likely that space-mining will begin within the next decade, which is why the two professors want to look into the laws — as the science is rapidly outpacing policies for responsible resource extraction in outer space.

"However, countries that have a deep interest in space mining, like the United States, argue that the reference to the word 'use' means that they can take the minerals away from the moon, or from asteroids, or Mars and use them somewhere else."

The U.S. has adopted a national law that Oosterveld says it is often referred to as the "finder's keepers law," which gives rights to private U.S. companies to all resources extracted from the moon. Japan, Scotland and the United Arab Emirates adopted similar laws, she said.

"This is why we want you to look into this further and propose what should be in place, particularly with respect to environmental laws because countries are stepping in and trying to fill the gap themselves with laws that benefit only them," said Oosterveld.

Western University law professor and faculty member for the institute of earth and space exploration Valerie Oosterveld explains the emerging field of space law and what that will mean for potential space-mining missions on London Morning. 6:57

The project will aim to come up with recommendations for resource extraction within international space law by identifying similarities with current international environmental law.

While there are "quite a few" international environmental law treaties, Oosterveld says there is only one "vague" reference in the Outer Space Treaty that says states cannot harmfully contaminate space.

"What we're looking for is 'are there laws that are so widely accepted on earth' that they would naturally apply in space and help fill that gap."

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