One Wee Step For Man - Owning Property in Space
Glasgow Prestwick Airport, famous for its stag-do horror stories, being Donald Trump’s official airport, and that time Elvis Presley had a two-hour stopover in the 60s and had no idea where he was. On the face of it, it appears like the Ayr airport doesn’t have a great reputation, and it certainly doesn’t help that Elvis chose to never step foot on UK soil again after his two hours there. Whether it was the excessively expensive duty free, or an overly excited Ibiza destined hen-do who forced the poor ‘King of Rock and Roll’ to do unspeakable things which put him off the UK for life, we’ll probably never know. Nonetheless, Prestwick Airport’s image is about to be all shook up, and it may, at long last, become famous for more than just traumatising Elvis.
After an £80 million investment, plans are well underway for Prestwick to become Europe’s first commercial spaceport, a site that can be used for the launching and receiving of spacecraft. The UK government is hoping to take advantage of the space industry, a market which is predicted to be worth £400 billion in ten years’ time. Their aim is to provide human space flight, satellite launches, gravity free flying and hypersonic flight services. With such financial potential, it is of no surprise that Prestwick has competition from four other in-development Scottish spaceports, all of whom are vying to win Scotland’s very own space race. Spaceports in Shetland, Machrihanish, the Western Isles and Sutherland are all expected to create hundreds of highly skilled jobs and significantly boost the economy, as well as help the UK succeed in its lofty ambitions to launch 2000 small satellites by 2030. With Scotland potentially becoming a pioneer in the space industry, other than cheap stag-dos in space, what does our future as Scottish citizens hold?
One of the most significant areas in the space industry, and one which Scots of the future could soon take advantage of, is ownership of property in space. Property on Earth is a simple concept, you’re born, you buy things, you die and then pass them on through a will. Can this be applied to outer space? Back in 1967, out of fear that tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union in the Cold War would lead to either country placing weapons of mass destruction in space, the United Nations created the Outer Space Treaty, a universally accepted international law that controls outer space and prohibits military activity, pre-emptively ending any chance of witnessing a Putin vs Trump lightsaber duel. It also provided Article II, which stated that:
“Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.”
This fundamental clause prevented any sort of outer space landgrab by nations and meant that Neil Armstrong planting a flag on the Moon did not make him the Moon’s Supreme Overlord. However, there is much debate between legal scholars as to whether this clause created a supermassive loophole. Although it may have intended to have prohibited all ownership of space property, many scholars interpret the term ‘national appropriation’ to only apply to states, allowing private individuals property rights. Whether this interpretation is correct is yet to be resolved, and the debate has become especially significant in recent times due to the United States passing their 2015 Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, which recognised the right of its citizens to own any resources they mine from asteroids. Luxembourg of all places soon followed suit with their own Space Resources Act in 2017, which allowed the same rights to any company with a registered office in their country. With states such as the United Arab Emirates following their footsteps, there could be a space gold rush in the near future. With its new spaceports (and the help of a Scotland Space Resources Bill), Scottish citizens and companies could lead the way in grasping an opportunity that is out of this world. But why, other than being able to get a tan on the patio of your second home on Mercury, would anyone want to own property in space?
The answer is of course money. Famous astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson claims that “the first trillionaire there will ever be, is the person who exploits the natural resources on asteroids”. The amount of highly sought-after and valuable resources on these unassuming lumps of rock is mind-boggling, with many containing colossal amounts of metallic elements such as iron, gold and platinum. In some cases, a single asteroid could contain more of these metals than has ever been mined in the history of mankind. If any of the two million asteroids that fly around our solar system were successfully mined, the extracted minerals could be used in the production of the almost endless list of goods that humans need, including batteries, computer chips, solar panels and cancer treatments, to name but a few. However, due to an increasing world population and the global spread of industrialisation, the Earth’s supply of these valuable metals is dwindling at an exponential rate and in the future, asteroids may be the only access we have to these crucial elements. Mining in space would also allow us to replace the destructive and unsustainable practice of mining on Earth which destroys eco-systems and significantly contributes to deforestation. On top of this, asteroids may also be the key to our survival as a species. As well as valuable metals, many asteroids also contain water. This can be broken down into hydrogen and oxygen, allowing us to create rocket fuel and to refuel in space. An asteroid could essentially be the petrol station on an infinite motorway, which opens up the possibilities of deep space exploration and space colonisation, useful if we ever want to get away from the parents for a while.
The benefits of asteroid mining are astronomical, however without clear and unambiguous space property ownership rights, these metals may remain floating around in space. Despite NASA valuing the resources in the Main Asteroid Belt, situated between Mars and Jupiter, at the incomprehensible amount of $700 quintillion (to put this into perspective, if this amount was split evenly between the world population, everyone would have an extra $100 billion in their bank account, and I could finally start shopping at Waitrose), without a guarantee of ownership, and thus the ability to sell and make profits, many companies will be unwilling to invest the millions required to mine these celestial bodies. Nevertheless, there are still more than 80 start-up asteroid mining companies currently in existence, including ‘Planetary Resources’ whose investors include Google co-founder Larry Page and Richard Branson. Even Glasgow has one, with its ‘Asteroid Mining Corporation’ currently lobbying the government to introduce its very own UK Space Resources Activities Bill. Although all of this may seem like stuff of science fiction, it is far from light-years away. In 2010 the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency was the first to collect asteroid samples, and it is predicted that by 2025, the first asteroid-mining expedition will be launched, and maybe Scotland will have a part to play. Who knows what the future holds, the possibilities truly are infinite. Maybe, just maybe, in 50 years’ time, I’ll return home one day with Waitrose shopping bags.