OUT THERE

Who Will Protect Us From Space Pirates?

It may sound like sci-fi. But millions and millions of dollars are pouring into projects to mine asteroids and the moon. And with a space gold rush comes space pirates.

04.15.16 5:02 AM ET

With trillions of dollars worth of minerals lying just under the moon’s surface or spinning around the solar system inside asteroids, space mining is big business.

Well, big potential business. No one has dug nickel out of an asteroid or scooped any tantalum from the lunar dust—at least not for profit. Before space miners can get drilling, they need to invent specialized industrial robots, set up orbital outposts and—arguably most importantly—convince investors, workers, and prospective buyers that space minerals are worth the cost and effort of mining them.

And now there’s another potential problem on the horizon: space pirates. How to stop them from stealing your minerals. And whose job it is to chase them down if they do manage to swipe your billion-dollar space-stash. No, I’m serious.

The subject of orbital grand theft came up during a panel discussion on the subject of space mining at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs this week. Peter Marquez, a vice president at Planetary Resources, a Washington state asteroid-mining company, recalled an encounter with a U.S. Navy official.

Marquez said the official asked him to imagine 100 years into the future, to a time when space mining is an established and thriving industry. “Space pirates,” the official said, “how would you protect against them?”

Marquez described being flabergasted. “You’re the U.S. Navy!” he said. The implication being, the military should fight space pirates just like it has battled, you know, Earth pirates over the centuries.

It all sounds so outlandish. But it’s increasingly likely that, sometime in the next few decades, this seemingly theoretical problem is going to become very real.

That’s because space mining is really primed to launch. With certain minerals becoming worryingly scarse on Earth—in particular, those “rare earth elements” you need to make mobile phones and other electronics—and with access to space getting easier by the day thanks to rocket start-ups such as SpaceX and Blue Origin, more and more companies are laying plans for space drilling.

And investors are ponying up, hoping to turn millions of dollars into billions of dollars once the first drones start scooping.

The burgeoning industry even has its own Google-sponsored contest, the Lunar X-Prize. Noting that the moon “is a treasure chest of rare metals,” the contest organizers are offering $30 million in prizes to teams that can, by the end of 2017, land a robotic rover on the moon, remotely drive it a short distance, and beam back high-definition video and images.

“The technologies developed by the Google Lunar X-Prize teams will further reduce costs and barriers to entry so that private industry can work alongside government agencies and advance lunar exploration.”

But there’s a catch. No one actually owns the moon, asteroids, or any other celestial body. That’s not just a consequence of certain practicalities—namely, getting to the moon and staying there. It’s a matter of international law. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which the United States, Russia, China, and all but a handful of other countries have signed, bans space real estate claims in order to prevent “a new form of colonial competition.”

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Which is why, in 2004, a federal judge threw out a lawsuit that Nevada resident Gregory Nemitz had filed against NASA after Nemitz unilaterally claimed ownership of Asteroid 433, nicknamed “Eros,” and NASA subsequently landed a probe on the same space rock. Nemitz had sent NASA a bill for $20 for probe parking (seriously) and NASA had refused to pay.

There are loopholes in the Outer Space Treaty, of course, and the wording can be vague. The United States and the Soviet Union actually fought hard to keep out of the treaty draft any language specifically prohibiting mining and, in late 2015, the U.S. Congress passed—and Barack Obama signed—a bill explicitly authorizing Americans to dig and drill in space.

Most experts interpret the admittedly loose and vague outer space legal regime to mean that you can’t own, say, a moon plot. But you can own anything you dig out of the moon’s soil or from the black rock of any asteroid your rocket-boosted drones manage to intercept.

According to Daniel Faber, CEO of Silicon Valley-based Deep Space Industries, the guiding principle in space-mining is “secure tenure”—in other words, an exclusive license to a particular mineral vein. If you—or more accurately, your robots—are digging in a particular spot, then you should be the only ones digging in that spot.

But if a rival company or some admittedly well-heeled criminal space-enterprise wanted to bash your robot and scoop up your platinum, who would stop them—or punish them after the fact?

NASA? The main U.S. space agency maintains much of the world’s existing space infrastructure and keeps a few astronauts in orbit pretty much year-round. But NASA doesn’t have the legal authority to make arrests—or the muscle to start putting no-goodniks in the galactic pokey.

The military does have that authority. The U.S. Air Force, not the Navy, is America’s—and the world’s—main space traffic cop. The Air Force’s telescopes, radars, and satellites keep track of every spacecraft and chunk of debris in orbit. It operates manueverable satellites and robotic mini-shuttles that can fly close to, manipulate, and even destroy other spacecraft. If any organization is in a position to observe and intervene in acts of space piracy, it’s the Air Force.

But does the military want the job? Douglas Loverro, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy, did not respond to a request for comment. But while testifying to a Senate committe back in 2014, Loverro hinted that playing space-cop is, at the very least, cost-prohibitive for the military alone. “The space environment is too big and too complex for a single nation to bear the entire cost of monitoring it.”

So maybe the Air Force could team up with other spacefaring countries to keep the peace between competing mining firms and potential space-bandits. There’s certainly precedent on Earth. When the U.S. Navy patrols for pirates off the coast of Somalia or in some other maritime hot spot, it almost always does so in an international task force operating under the guise of NATO or some other military alliance.

That way, the Navy more or less has much of the world’s consent when it detains, questions, arrests, or even kills suspected pirates.

The military could seek the same diplomatic cover in outer space. “Should a private U.S. satellite be damaged by actions taken by some other state or non-governmental organization in violation of the treaties or understandings associated with the peaceful use of space, I believe the results would be similar to those we see today in the international response to piracy,” an unnamed Pentagon official told Defense One.

“The United States would work with other nations to identify the bad actor and collectively bring the weight of world opinion and collective action on them to eliminate the threat,” the official added.

Conveniently, there are already UN agencies dedicated to tracking activities in space, including the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space and the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs.

The UN doesn’t have its own military forces. Instead, when the UN goes to war or deploys a peacekeeping force, member countries voluntarily place their own troops under the world body’s command.

But the United States hasn’t joined a major UN mission since 1993, the year 18 U.S. Army Rangers and other troops died supporting a botched UN operation in Somalia. Would America make an exception in the interest of protecting space-miners and their multibillion-dollar mineral hauls?

Way too soon to say. But the issue could be come more urgent as space-miners begin their first exploratory missions in the next couple years. Faber said his company and the rest of the space-mining industry are actively “exploring” ownership and enforcement issues “with players around the world.”

And Marquez pointed out that, at least in space-mining’s early years, the sheer abundance of asteroids and lunar landscape could render moot any direct competion… or piracy. Marquez gestured toward his fellow space-mining pioneers sharing the stage with him. “In practice, given that there are tens of thousands of these things—if he’s mining an asteroid, why would I go to the same one?”