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Redmond asteroid mining industry celebrates precedent in space law

Planetary Resources hopes to be prospecting asteroids within five years. They've made substantial progress, with a satellite launched off the International Space Station earlier this year, as well as a test vehicle sent out to explore asteroids close to earth. (NASA)

Imagine a time when a space shuttle exploring the Milky Way galaxy and is running low on water could just stop on the nearest asteroid to buy some H2O from an on-site mining operation.

That’s what Redmond-based asteroid mining company Planetary Resources envisions they’ll be able to accomplish in the future. A new law brings them closer to that goal, president and chief miner Chris Lewicki says.

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The U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act recognizes a company’s right to own the resources it harvests from an asteroid and profit from it.

Chris Lewicki says it makes the industry much more viable for local and international investors now that governments are considering ways to address space commerce.

“One of the first questions about developing resources in space, and providing oxygen and hydrogen for future space industry and future space travelers, is, ‘You might technically be able to do that, but can you legally do that?'” Lewicki said.

He says this first measure takes into account U.S. law and international treaties. Lewicki compares this precedent to fishermen harvesting their catch from the ocean: No single person owns the Pacific Ocean, but anglers own whatever they might legally take from it.

Lewicki says that although their company isn’t out on a rock mining asteroids right now, it’s important to hash out the legal hurdles to encourage the fledgling industry and make it truly viable. The U.S. government is taking leadership on that front, with a slew of policy and regulations for companies in space being considered in the coming months. He says taxes will even be part of the equation, as generating profits is all part of the system.

“This is just showing that this [asteroid mining] is part of our economy, and our aim is to make it one of the biggest ones,” Lewicki said.

They’re hoping research on the Planetary Resources satellite that’s already orbiting the earth will help scientists figure out how to detect resources such as water, minerals and potential fuel sources for shuttle missions. That could help extend the capabilities of space travel.

As for how close they are to getting up and running in space, Lewicki says it’s nearer than you might think.

“The gold rush started with the first gold nugget, and then got up to industrial scales,” Lewicki said. “The fuel rush in space will start with the first bottle of fuel and scale up from there. And I think that it’s quite possible for that to be in the first half of the 2020s, which now, of course, are less than five years away.”

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