Space: The Final Frontier … For Lawyers?

“One treaty prohibits nuclear sources in space, yet nuclear energy may be what we need to blast asteroids that are headed toward the Earth.”

By Laura RiceJanuary 14, 2016 1:48 pm,

Texas has long been central to the space industry with NASA. Now SpaceX and Blue Origin have set up shop here. But the “final frontier” often pushes the boundaries of federal and international law.

Texas Tech law professor Vickie Sutton sees this space connection as an opportunity for up-and-coming lawyers. Sutton was a scientist in the White House Science Office under President George H.W. Bush and worked with the National Space Council. She’s now director of the Center for Biodefense, Law and Public Policy at Texas Tech and is developing a course in space law.

Sutton says the law dictates that space belongs to no one, much like open sea. But the solar system is replete with minerals, including ridges of nickel and platinum in asteroids that pass by Earth.

“The question came up from industry looking to go into asteroid mining,” she says. “Mining companies want to be assured that they can own it once they mine it.”

In November, Sutton says the president signed a bill that permits mining companies to own minerals they’re able to recover.

“Of course, this is domestic legislation,” she says. “It will be interesting to see how that plays out. But it probably makes sense, because otherwise industry wouldn’t want to invest in asteroid mining if they didn’t think they would have title to the minerals once they got them.”

Five international treaties are considered the basis of space law, Sutton says. Questions include whose laws apply in the International Space Station.

“The way it seems to come out,” she says, “is the country with the most investment is where you find the jurisdiction.”

Going forward, business law may dictate what happens in orbit. “At least at the surface of the Earth, business law will have a lot to do with it,” Sutton says. “Where you have entry of spacecraft, you’re going to have all domestic laws applying.”

In many cases, state laws will handle liability, especially in terms of space tourism. Recently the U.S Code created a separate volume for space law, for the first time in decades, Sutton says. Potential threats like asteroids and comets may strike at the heart of some points of contention in space law.

“One treaty prohibits nuclear sources in space,” Sutton says, “yet nuclear energy may be what we need to blast asteroids that are headed toward the Earth.”