The Canadian government is being urged not to endorse a U.S. approach to mining in space that experts warn could result in countries setting their own rules for extraterrestrial resource extraction.
Seven Canadian international space policy and law experts have written a letter to Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne asking Canada instead to back the development of a multilateral treaty among as many countries as possible to set uniform rules.
They’re responding to an executive order signed April 6 by U.S. President Donald Trump that rejects the idea of outer space as an asset that is outside of national jurisdiction.
“Outer space is a legally and physically unique domain of human activity, and the United States does not view it as a global commons,” the Trump executive order states.
The Canadian experts say space must be regulated internationally – similarly to Antarctica or the world’s seabeds – and all countries, include non-space-faring ones, get a say in decision-making.
The alternative, they warn, could be a splintered approach where companies conduct flag-of-convenience resource extraction in space under whichever country has the least onerous rules.
One real attraction, experts say, is ice and water-bearing minerals that could be used to produce fuel in space, a potentially cheaper option than carrying terrestrial fuel that must escape Earth’s gravity.
One of the signatories to the letter, Michael Byers, Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia and co-director of The Outer Space Institute, said space mining may not be a reality in 10 years but is likely to be taking place within 20 years.
Poorly regulated space mining could hurt Earth, he warns.
“Space mining is going to create debris because you are mining in a vacuum with very low gravity and because these asteroids will be passing close to Earth you could get streams of debris taking out satellites,” he said.
Mining could also change the trajectory of asteroids. “In a worst-case scenario you could create an Earth impact situation.”
The experts note the Trump executive order mandates the U.S. State Department to seek support from other national governments for the U.S. position, including on a bilateral basis and without recognizing the need for an international agreement. “For this reason, it seems likely that the State Department will soon approach Global Affairs Canada on this issue,” the experts write to Mr. Champagne.
“There has, however, been a long-standing consensus among states that the recovery and use of space resources should be governed by an international agreement, as has been done in other 'areas beyond national jurisdiction’ where resources are recognized as constituting ‘global commons,’ for example the deep seabed, international airspace and the radio frequency spectrum,” the letter says.
“The current U.S. Administration takes the unprecedented position that outer space is not a global commons. It favours a unilateral approach to governing the recovery and use of space resources. This position is shared by only one other state, namely Luxembourg.”
Other signatories to the letter addressed to Mr. Champagne included William (Mac) Evans, former president of the Canadian Space Agency; David Kendall, a former chair of the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space; and Marie Lucy Stojak, the present chair of the Canadian Space Advisory Committee.
A spokesman for Mr. Champagne said Canada will work not only with the U.S. but also through multilateral channels as well.
“We have long held that the peaceful use of space and space exploration should be carried out for the benefit and in the interest of all countries,” Adam Austen, the minister’s deputy director of communications said. “For that reason, we will continue to work with the U.S. and other international partners on the issue of the use of space resources on a bilateral basis as well as through relevant multilateral bodies.”
With a report from Reuters