The 1967 U.N. Outer Space Treaty appears to be outdated when thinking about where space exploration is headed next. Is it time to update the space treaty? Probably. (Image credit: pixabay)
When man first landed on the moon 50 years ago, no one could’ve guessed one day there’d be talks of space tourism, asteroid mining, off-Earth settlements, and missions by private companies like SpaceX. With a renewed interest in space exploration, many are questioning the 1967 U.N. Outer Space Treaty that was established to prevent individual countries from claiming sovereignty over celestial bodies as well as preventing anyone from putting nukes in space. The problem is the treaty doesn’t take current space interests into consideration, so what exactly does it do?
The 1967 U.N. Outer Space Treaty prevents any nation from laying sovereignty claims over celestial bodies. So what about Elon Musk’s quest to settle Mars? This is where things get tricky. Some believe since the treaty doesn’t forbid it, it’s allowable. The problem is there’s an article in the treaty that makes the signing countries responsible for “national activities in outer space” regardless of whether they are done by government or private entities.
This means the U.S. would have to approve a SpaceX settlement mission to make sure the company’s activities don’t violate the treaty. In addition, the mission’s personnel and material, like their ships and habitats, would stay under the jurisdiction of the launching country. So chances are no, Musk can’t settle on Mars without approval.
What does the treaty say in terms of mining gold on Mars? The answer changes depending on who you ask. The U.S. government says yes. Though we don’t have enough proof that there are significant gold deposits on Mars, the amount of volcanic activity makes it plausible. While the treaty bars countries from appropriating celestial bodies, countries that support the right to mine materials can still argue that the celestial bodies don’t apply to resource mining. Opponents argue mining is a form of appropriation, so resources in space belong to everyone. More countries like Russia and China have expressed their intent to pursue space mining, so with the treaty being unclear on this issue space mining seems to get a pass.
The treaty also doesn’t account for possible space tourism. Though we’re still pretty far from regular trips to space, many have questioned it in regard to moving space dust and asteroids. While the treaty says you can’t own an asteroid, there’s nothing that says you can’t move it. And since there are no conservation laws in space, countries licensing tours would handle the rules. But some are worried that taking space dust as a souvenir would lead to the moon’s erosion. Typically, only governments are allowed to take scientific samples from celestial bodies to help increase our knowledge of outer space.
It may seem a bit silly to ask these questions, but with more organizations and companies getting serious about space travel and other ventures, it’s something that needs to be taken into consideration. While none of these scenarios have actually happened, it still seems like it’s time for a new space treaty.
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