So it only makes sense that American lawmakers would seek to guarantee property rights for U.S. space corporations. Under the SPACE Act, which just passed the House, businesses that do asteroid mining will be able to keep whatever they dig up:
Any asteroid resources obtained in outer space are the property of the entity that obtained such resources, which shall be entitled to all property rights thereto, consistent with applicable provisions of Federal law.
This is how we know commercial space exploration is serious. The opportunity here is so vast that businesses are demanding federal protections for huge, floating objects they haven't even surveyed yet.
But it's actually important that we're talking about this now, because we don't want to wind up in a situation where multiple companies are fighting for the same patch of rock without having a way to resolve it. There are two key questions at stake: Who should regulate commercial space activity? And what rules should apply?
By default, the relevant authority could wind up being the Federal Aviation Administration. An odd choice, you might think. What could the FAA, an agency whose chief concern is air travel, want with outer space? Well, the FAA is the agency that grants licenses for commercial space launches (the ones that aren't performed for NASA or the Defense Department, anyway).
This potentially gives the nation's aviation regulators a tremendous amount of power over the fledgling private space industry.
"They would become the de facto regulator of everything that happens in space," said Berin Szoka, president of the libertarian-leaning think tank TechFreedom.
Indeed, although the SPACE Act clarifies what private property rights look like in the great unknown, lawmakers were quick to point out that the bill doesn't do anything to curtail the FAA's authority.
"The bill preserves the FAA’s ability to regulate commercial human spaceflight in order to protect the uninvolved public, national security, public health and safety, safety of property, and foreign policy," the House Science Committee said in a release. "It also preserves FAA’s ability to regulate spaceflight participant and crew safety as a result of an accident or unplanned event."
Technically the FAA's jurisdiction covers launches and reentries only — but under a request from hotel and aspiring aerospace mogul Robert Bigelow, that power could grow.
You see, Bigelow wants to experiment with inflatable habitats that will allow people to live in space. By getting an FAA launch license that gives him access to space, Bigelow would be able to stake out an exclusive piece of the moon.
Space law experts believe that this exclusive territory could be very, very big. That's because under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, crewed vehicles are entitled to operate inside a 125-mile "non-interference" zone designed to keep astronauts safe, Joanne Gabrynowicz, the former editor of the Journal of Space Law, told Harvard Political Review. If the same standard were applied to commercial space operations on lunar or other extraterrestrial bodies, then Bigelow could become a leader in the first major land rush of outer space.
Think of how much potential power this gives the FAA over the future of space exploration. That may not be a bad thing. As Quartz' Tim Fernholz pointed out on Twitter on Thursday, commercial spaceflight entities aren't known as paragons of transparency, and the FAA could be an important player in keeping human space travel safe as much as enabling asteroid mining claims.