- - Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Entrepreneur Peter Diamandis recently announced the formation of Planetary Resources, a company whose goal is to mine asteroids for profit. While reportedly backed by a group of Google magnates and other high rollers, the prospects for this company appear quite problematic, as there is currently no technically feasible way to mine the precious metals that may exist in the asteroid belt and return them to Earth for sale.

Yet, this picture could be changed radically were a law enacted that would create a basis for private-property claims in space. The asteroids, the Moon, Mars and other extraterrestrial bodies collectively contain vast areas of unexplored and potentially resource-rich territory. They carry no commercial value today, but this can be remedied swiftly.

Consider the following: Enormous tracts of land were bought and sold in Kentucky for large sums of money a hundred years before settlers arrived despite the fact that, for purposes of development, trans-Appalachian America in the 1600s might as well have been Mars. What made it salable were two things: 1) at least a few people believed that it would be exploitable someday; and 2) a juridical arrangement existed in the form of British Crown land patents, which allowed trans-Appalachian land to be privately owned.

Thus, if a mechanism were put in place that could enforce private-property rights in space, mining claims probably could be bought and sold now. Such a mechanism would not need to employ enforcers (e.g., space police) patrolling the asteroid belt; the patent or property registry of a sufficiently powerful nation, such as the United States, would be entirely adequate.

For example, if the United States chose to grant a mining patent to a private group that surveyed an asteroid or a piece of Martian real estate to some specified degree of fidelity, such claims would be tradable today on the basis of their future speculative worth, and probably could be used to privately finance robotic mining survey probes in the near future. Furthermore, such claims would be enforceable internationally and throughout the solar system simply by having the U.S. Customs and Border Protection penalize with a punitive tariff any U.S. import made anywhere, directly or indirectly, with material that was extracted in defiance to the claim.

This sort of mechanism would not imply American sovereignty over the solar system, any more than the current U.S. patent and copyright offices’ coining of ideas into intellectual property implies U.S. government sovereignty over the universe of ideas. But just as in the case of intellectual property, some government’s agreement is needed to turn worthless terrain into real estate property value. The U.S. Patent Office benefits inventors of every country by providing them a means of turning their creative efforts into negotiable property. In the same way, a U.S. office for granting space mining patents would benefit all would-be planetary explorers, regardless of their nationality.

Once such a mechanism is in place, however, the undeveloped resources of space could become a tremendous source of capital to finance their exploration. Furthermore, when in private hands, the duly recognized claims would provide an incentive for their owners to further the development of technology that would enable their exploitation. As the capability for both exploration and development of space resources thus advanced, the value of both existing property claims and those obtainable in the future would increase, thereby expanding the financial resources available and accelerating space development even more.

The Obama administration has canceled NASA’s Mars and Jupiter probes planned for the coming decade. As a result, the government’s planetary exploration program has been set adrift in the face of an oncoming fiscal tsunami. Yet, with a stroke of a pen, a vibrant, privately funded space exploration effort could be brought into being, one that could use the daring and genius of the free market to rapidly bring the knowledge and the benefits of the vast untapped resources of the solar system to all mankind.

Lawmakers should take note and act accordingly.

Robert Zubrin is president of Pioneer Astronautics and author of “Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism” (Encounter Books, 2012), and “The Case for Mars”(Free Press, 1997).

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