Thursday, 21 February 2013 08:19
Mining on the moon may move from science fiction to reality faster than most people think and Australia can play its part.
But it may take many years to reach international agreement on the rules for off-Earth mining, Australian commercial satellite lawyer Donna Lawler said.
On Wednesday she spoke to Australia's first Off-Earth Mining Forum at the University of New South Wales.
Ms Lawler said there is still global debate about the legality of off-Earth mining, with no clear-cut international agreement on a legal framework for such ventures.
But she says there is growing momentum for such projects as the major space powers eye the moon and Mars for their mineral potential and private companies develop space flight capability.
Ms Lawler said it is a good opportunity for Australia to leverage its experience in mining and be among the first to develop techniques appropriate for low-gravity operations.
She said off-Earth mining was starting to look "a lot more likely", with the private sector in the United States moving to develop space technology.
"First there were a bunch of billionaires that were trying to do space things that people thought were just nutters."
But now a commercial launch facility had sent a craft to the International Space Station and private companies were proving more nimble than organisations like NASA, Ms Lawler said.
"We may find things go quicker than we expected."
Ms Lawler said national and international law still applied to people and objects sent into space but the key law in place was the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 signed by all the major space powers.
It declares there can be no claim of national sovereignty in space and treaty members must avoid contaminating the moon.
"What that means for moon mining is still of a bit of a moot point," Ms Lawler said.
A later Moon Agreement had been signed by Australia "but none of the major space powers that are going to be mining any time soon", including the US, Russia, China and India, she said.
That agreement says that when moon mining is imminent, the treaty members will meet to develop an international administrative regime to govern mining.
Ms Lawler said space powers may go in and grab resources in space or decide it's better to have some legal certainty and get together with other countries and form a regulatory regime.
"It will be interesting to see what the United States does in particular in terms of prompting any discussions," she said.
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