OTTAWA | March 22, 2013

The race to own Mars

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Aerospace engineer Alex Ellery is finally seeing the stars align for his dreams of mining in space. 

Ellery hopes to see more funding go into mining projects like his, while Canadians' interest in space is on a high. This month the Curiosity Rover proved that drilling on Mars was possible and astronaut Chris Hadfield became the first Canadian commander of the International Space Station (ISS). 

Ellery's team at Carleton University is partnered with NASA and the Canadian Space Agency on the RESOLVE project, which seeks to show that mining on the moon is a good commercial investment. The Maple Leaf spacecraft, carrying the Curiosity rover heading to Mars, launched on November 26, 2011.  

The project would mine the moon’s poles for hydrogen and oxygen. The extracted elements could be combined to make fuel that would power missions to Mars, making the planet a much more reachable destination.

As for who sets up the operations at the moon's poles, Ellery says it won’t be governments since the cost is too high. Because Canada is a world leader in mining technology, he suggests that a Canadian company jump on the opportunity.

“Ownership is 9/10th of the law, so I say go for it. The laws will follow after,” says Ellery. RESOLVE could launch as soon as the end of 2013.

The law of the Wild West

But who will own Mars? Whoever gets there first.

At least that’s what current international law states—almost. No individual, company or country can actually own acreage on any celestial body, but if they set up shop there no one can take it from them. 

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty is the most widely accepted body of legislation governing activity in space and it is very open-ended. It was written before there were significant commercial interests in space, so property rights for projects by space tourists and asteroid miners were not established.

Space law consultant Melissa Force at Webster University in California doesn’t think additional laws need to be established. She says the current laws are enough for now.

“This is the best way to encourage companies to get up there,” Force says. “There’s such a huge prize for being first.”

Common ground

International law treats space like it treats oceans, the atmosphere and Antarctica.

“You can fish, you can set up a mine, but you can’t own the ocean. The same rules apply in space,” says Chuck Black of the Canadian Space Commerce Association.

The moon, Mars and asteroids fall into the global commons, which means that anyone can extract resources. The resources, and the structures and machines used to extract them, belong to whoever set them up in the first place.

Clarifying who has rights to the resources is important, says the Canadian Space Agency’s Jean-Claude Piedboeuf, because just like on Earth, the high cost of operating a mine site on an asteroid means that without guaranteed ownership any venture becomes too much of a risk. 

“If another mining company can start drilling a kilometre from where you were prospecting, you will want assurances you can make them stop, because prospecting is very expensive,” Piedboeuf says. Those assurances exist within the Outer Space Treaty. 

You can fish, you can set up a mine, but you can’t own the ocean. The same rules apply in space.

However, subsequent treaties, which aim to clarify the Outer Space Treaty, put a lot of responsibility on the countries where those mining companies originate. The Space Liability Convention maintains that a country is responsible for damage caused by its nationals which includes individuals and companies.

Ram Jahku, a professor of space law at McGill University, says so far Canada has been the only victim of damage. When the nuclear-powered Soviet satellite Cosmos 954 crash-landed in Canada, international pressure from the treaty signatories convinced Russia to pay for its clean-up.

“International pressure is usually enough to work as enforcement because all countries want to be seen as responsible,” Force says. 

But Force says she also believes that the time for large-scale agreements through the United Nations is over. There are now too many opposing interests to have all parties sign onto overarching laws.

The Outer Space Treaty has 101 signatories. Force says that as specifics were nailed down, giants like the United States, who want to maintain their freedom, lost interest. As an example of this failure, she cites the Moon treaty, which tries to discuss how to share resources in space, but has only been ratified by 15 countries, none of which are space-faring.

Jakhu agrees and says multilateral agreements like the Space Station Agreement are more likely to govern the exploration of space in the future. 

Force suggests this model is very adaptable to private companies from different countries interested in going into space together. The Space Station Agreement includes provisions for solving funding problems, so power-sharing is well-laid out and tested.

International Space Station

Astronaut Chris Hadfield became the commander of the ISS on March 13 after the five partner states in the space station treaty unanimously selected him for the job. 

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield clings to Canadarm2, a robotic arm on the ISS.  

The United States (NASA), Canada (CSA), Japan (JAXA), Russia (Roscosmos) and the European Space Agency govern the space station with a multilateral agreement, which they recently extended until 2020.

Since the parties first signed in 1998, each has contributed to the creation and maintenance of the station, which allows them to be part of the treaty that makes decisions relating to its use and governance.

Private companies cannot become partners with the ISS, but could create their own space station.

Just as Hadfield went up with a Russian shuttle this time, the next Canadian astronaut might leave Earth on a private shuttle. 

Mars: The new tourist attraction?
  • Set to blast off in less than five years, the private not-for-profit project, Inspiration Mars, plans to send a middle-aged couple on a 501-day trip to Mars and back.
  • Private space project, Mars One, is looking for people to not only travel to Mars, but to stay on the red planet too. The explorers chosen will endure eight years of training with the one-way ticket flight scheduled to leave in September 2022.
  • Nobel Prize-winning physicist Gerard’t Hooft and Big Brother co-creator Paul Romer are planning to put colonists on Mars by 2023 and turning the mission into a reality TV show. 
The 1967 Outer Space Treaty

The Outer Space Treaty provides the basic framework on international space law, including the following principles:

  • The exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind
  • Outer space shall be free for exploration by all states
  • Outer space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty
  • States shall not place nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in orbit, on celestial bodies or station them in outer space in any other manner
  • The Moon and other celestial bodies shall be used exclusively for peaceful purposes
  • Astronauts shall be regarded as the envoys of mankind
  • States are responsible for national space activities whether carried out by governmental or non-governmental entities
  • States are liable for damage caused by their space objects
  • States are to avoid harmful contamination of space and celestial bodies.

Source: The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs