The current vision of the leadership in the United States on space exploration, as articulated by President Obama in 2010, is that eventually there would be a manned mission on Mars. President Obama has not given a time line for this occurrence and it could well be after his tenure of office, even if he were to win a second term. This is in contrast to the declaration of President Kennedy in 1961 when he said about the moon missions: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth”.

l by Dr. Ruwantissa Abeyratne

(May 02, 2012, Montreal, Sri Lanka Guardian) In 2009, the United States Human Spaceflight Plans Committee (more popularly known as the Augustine Committee, named after Norman R. Augustine, Chairman) in its report recognized that space exploration has become a global enterprise and that in the face of a burgeoning commercial space industry which could be encouraged to engage in space exploration, costs incurred by the government could be vastly reduced in the implementation of its space programme. The Committee also opined that the United States could lead a bold new international effort in the human exploration of space with the involvement of international partners.

The most recent initiative in space exploration is mining near earth asteroids (NEAs) where the presence of humans in the area of NEAs brought to near earth orbit is envisioned for 2015.

On 16 April 2012 it was reported that a new company – Planetary Resources – announced its existence. It is supported by high end industrialists such as Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, award winning film maker James Cameron and other persons of substance and wealth. The company is reported to have stated that it will overlay two critical sectors – space exploration and natural resources that would add trillions of dollars to the global GDP.

Possibilities

The current vision of the leadership in the United States on space exploration, as articulated by President Obama in 2010, is that eventually there would be a manned mission on Mars. President Obama has not given a time line for this occurrence and it could well be after his tenure of office, even if he were to win a second term. This is in contrast to the declaration of President Kennedy in 1961 when he said about the moon missions: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth”.

Space exploration started as a race between the then Soviets (USSR) and the Americans when the former launched the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1 in 1957. The United States quickly established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) a year later and galvanized itself into action.

Space exploration has always been, and will be driven by the need for political and technological one-upmanship and, as Neil deGrasse Tyson, Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History says in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs: “If the United States commits to the goal of reaching Mars, it will almost certainly do so in reaction to the progress of other nations – as was the case with NASA, the Apollo programme, and the project that became the International Space Station. For the past decade, I have joked with colleagues that the United States would land astronauts on Mars in a year or two if only the Chinese would leak a memo that revealed plans to build military bases there”. Tyson goes on to say that this joke should not be taken lightly as the Chinese have released an official strategy paper in which they claim that they have a five-year plan to advance their space capabilities which include the launching of space laboratories, manned spaceships and space freighters and other activities of advanced space exploration.

Although the Space Shuttle has been retired, NASA continues with its space programme, if only for the incontrovertible fact that slowing down space exploration would be disastrous for the development of humankind. Most of modern technology such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRIs) and other scanners have been developed by physicists. An example is the Hubble Space Telescope, which had serious optics defects when it was launched in 1991, prompting physicists to correct the deficiency and enable the telescope to send some of most sophisticated imagery from space to Earth. In this corrective process, scientists discovered that the challenges faced by astrophysicists in correcting Hubble’s imaging problems were similar to what doctors faced in their visual search for tumours in mammograms. A collaborative effort which followed between the medical profession and astrophysicists enabled the medical researchers to apply the corrective principles of the Hubble imagery to mammography, resulting in significant advances in the early detection of breast cancer.

As already stated, the latest in the epoch of space exploration is the attempt by a select group of persons in the United States in mining asteroids. A recent study (Asteroid Retrieval Feasibility Study) conducted in September 2011 and released in April 2012 by the Keck Institute of Space Studies (KISS) of the California Institute of Technology (CALTEC) opines that by the use of a three stage technological process: identifying candidate asteroids for mining (which has already been mastered); applying solar electric propulsion (which is now being used on small spacecraft); and having a human presence in the area in which an asteroid is directed (achievable in 2025), a robotic asteroid retrieval process could be initiated, where a NEA of around 500 metric tons with a 7 metre width could be “nudged” into close orbit with Earth. So far, 6 Apollo missions have brought back only 382 kilograms of samples.

The benefits of mining asteroids are expected to be substantial in terms of natural resources that can be brought back to Earth, estimated to add trillions of dollars to the global GDP. Among the natural resources expected are platinum and cobalt which are of high value and limited quantity here.

Challenges

So far, so good. All this sounds like a dream come true, achieved with the assistance of modern technology. The next step would be to consider how this could be politically achieved, given the realm of space law that is applicable. Article 1 of the Outer Space Treaty (Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies) of 1967 provides that the exploration and use of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development, and shall be the province of all mankind. It goes on to say that outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall be free for exploration and use by all States without discrimination of any kind, on a basis of equality and in accordance with international law, and there shall be free access to all areas of celestial bodies.

Finally, Article 1 provides that there shall be freedom of scientific investigation in outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, and States shall facilitate and encourage international co-operation in such investigation.

The more challenging provision in the Treaty is Article 2 which prescribes that outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means. This precludes a State from appropriating a celestial body inter alia by use.

The KECK Study has the following recommendations: “The retrieval of a several-hundred-ton carbonaceous asteroid would present unparalleled opportunities for international cooperation. The retrieval could be carried out under the same philosophy as the Apollo program, “in peace for all mankind,” but with a significant advantage. An international panel could be formed to oversee both curation of the body and the review of proposals for its study. The demand for samples for engineering and scientific study of the carbonaceous chondrite material by academic, governmental, and industrial laboratories – usually severely hampered by lack of pristine material – could be met generously. Samples could be returned to Earth for study, whereas microgravity processing experiments of the sort envisioned above could be carried out in situ in its parking orbit. Selected space faring nations would have access to the body under the oversight of the international curatorial panel. Nations without the ability to fly missions to the body would be encouraged to form teaming arrangements and propose jointly with those who can access it.

As a natural step in moving human exploration capabilities from the International Space Station (ISS) into cislunar space, then beyond, the ACR mission concept would offer many opportunities for international participation”.

Conclusion

The final questions in this equation are : “if private companies or individuals conduct outer space activities, who is responsible and accountable for such activities?” and “who would own the samples brought to earth? If trillions of dollars worth of platinum and cobalt (not to mention other precious resources) are mined from asteroids nudged to near earth orbit, could there be private ownership of this property? In response to the first question on responsibility, The Outer Space Treaty provides that States Parties bear international responsibility for national activities in outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, whether such activities are carried out by governmental agencies or non-governmental entities, and for assuring that national activities are carried out in conformity with the provisions set forth in the treaty. The Treaty further states that the activities of non-governmental entities in outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies would in essence inevitably require authorization and continuing supervision by the appropriate State Party.

As for the second question of ownership, The Outer Space Treaty prescribes that outer space is a resource that belongs to all mankind. Therefore it follows that property which resides in outer space belongs to all. However, as stated by some commentators, economic theory suggests that property rights and claims thereto emerge when it is in someone’s self interest to claim property, and that claims to such rights are prompted by desires of States, governments or individuals purely based on cost benefit possibilities. In this context, one has to wait and see what will develop in this expensive but valuable exercise worth trillions of dollars.

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