Outer space capitalism: The legal and technical challenges facing the private space industry
The private sector may need the Outer Space Treaty to be updated before it can make any claims to celestial bodies or their resources.
PETER WARD: So the private space economy has emerged in the last several decades, I guess. But it's really increased in speed over the past 10 years, I guess. SpaceX and Blue Origin are the ones that are really making this go faster. You know, Musk's SpaceX is obviously launching rockets at cheaper prices than ever before, and that's allowing more people than ever to get into space. And that's probably the biggest pro of private space and the private space economy is that we're enabling more access to space. We're enabling people to do more things, more great things, which ultimately help us here on Earth.
Against that, there are some cons. Not everything is great when you launch in space. If you do it in the right possible spirit, then it's all fantastic. If we're going to the moon, if we're going to Mars, to better the species, then obviously that's a great thing for Earth. It's a great thing for humanity. But if you throw in capitalism and making profits, then sometimes the waters can be muddied. And that's not necessarily always a good thing.
You can have things like monopolies in space, something that not many people have ever thought of. And you can have poor regulation. And you can — it's a very dangerous place, space. And you can have incidents, accidents. There's a host of things that could go wrong if we don't approach space in the right way. And with the private sector and with little regulation — not saying that there is little regulation, but if we don't keep up regulation — then some things can go wrong.
The main form of regulation is a treaty, actually, that was signed in 1967. It's the Outer Space Treaty. And it governs what you can and cannot do in space, to a certain degree. So one of the major things it says is that no country can colonize any part of the universe. So you can't go to the moon and claim part of it.
So two years after that treaty was signed, America did go to the moon, and they planted a flag on the surface, famously. But they actually went to great lengths to explain that that wasn't something that represented that they owned any of that territory. It was merely a symbol of achievement, rather than staking any claim to the moon.
You also see a lot of websites where people are claiming to sell parts of the moon. And that's completely illegal, impossible. That's really just a piece of paper you're giving someone. So there is the Outer Space Treaty. And that is now coming up against private space. The worlds are kind of colliding. The Outer Space Treaty was written so long ago, before we even knew that private space was going to be a thing. So these private space companies that have grand designs that, you know, Musk wants to go to Mars and wants to build a settlement and a colony, he's going to run into the Outer Space Treaty at some point. He's not going to be able to do that without tackling this law that was signed by all the major space faring nations that says that nobody can claim part of another planet.
So how do you build a settlement without claiming part of that planet? And I guess another part of that is resource gathering. There is what America has already said that you can take resources from a place without owning it. So essentially, you could go to the moon and you could take hydrogen from below the surface. But you don't actually have to say that you own that part of the moon, and that in the Outer Space Treaty, there is an ambiguity, which America has come down on the side of no, you can go to the moon, take resources, and not own it. Luxembourg has also said that you can do that. But other countries have come out against it.
So the regulations that there are, they're butting heads against the emerging private sector and other plans of countries. And at some point, something's got to give.
To do anything in space, in the private space sector, you have to have a solid business plan, just like anywhere else in the world. So you have to be able to make money. And your biggest cost, obviously, is getting a rocket off — getting a ride or a rocket off the face of the earth and landing it somewhere and then carrying out an operation. Asteroid mining — some people don't take it so seriously within the industry, because it's incredibly expensive just to go to the moon, which is obviously a fairly standstill target, the moon.
If you're trying to land on an asteroid, put equipment down. Put some kind of automated equipment down. Take the resources. Take off from the asteroid. Bring it back to Earth. Your overheads are so astronomically high that there's almost no way you could make a profit unless you were taking something so far from that asteroid that you would sell it for an absolute fortune here on earth.
So I mean, the law in America that they said you can go to other places and mine resources and you don't have to claim ownership was backed up by the asteroid mining companies, which were very hot at the time of that law being signed. They pushed for it because I knew that the Outer Space Treaty was in that way, and they managed to push through a law just in America that says you can do it.
So legally, as long as they take off from America, they can do it. Whether they'll ever do it is another question. It's one of those weird ideas that we might never see come to fruition.
- The Outer Space Treaty, which was signed in 1967, is the basis of international space law. Its regulations set out what nations can and cannot do, in terms of colonization and enterprise in space.
- One major stipulation of the treaty is that no nation can individually claim or colonize any part of the universe—when the US planted a flag on the Moon in 1969, it took great pains to ensure the world it was symbolic, not an act of claiming territory.
- Essentially to do anything in space, as a private enterprise, you have to be able to make money. When it comes to asteroid mining, for instance, it would be "astronomically" expensive to set up such an industry. The only way to get around this would be if the resources being extracted were so rare you could sell them for a fortune on Earth.
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But most city dwellers weren't seeing the science — they were seeing something out of Blade Runner.
On Sept. 9, many West Coast residents looked out their windows and witnessed a post-apocalyptic landscape: silhouetted cars, buildings and people bathed in an overpowering orange light that looked like a jacked-up sunset.
A study finds 1.8 billion trees and shrubs in the Sahara desert.
- AI analysis of satellite images sees trees and shrubs where human eyes can't.
- At the western edge of the Sahara is more significant vegetation than previously suspected.
- Machine learning trained to recognize trees completed the detailed study in hours.
Why this matters<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDU2MDQ1OC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzOTkyODg5NX0.O3S2DRTyAxh-JZqxGKj9KkC6ndZAloEh4hKhpcyeFDQ/img.jpg?width=980" id="3770d" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="3c27b79d4c0600fb6ebb82e650cabec0" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Area in which trees were located
Credit: University of Copenhagen<p>As important as trees are in fighting climate change, scientists need to know what trees there are, and where, and the study's finding represents a significant addition to the global tree inventory.</p><p>The vegetation Brandt and his colleagues have identified is in the Western Sahara, a region of about 1.3 million square kilometers that includes the desert, <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sahel" target="_blank">the Sahel</a>, and the <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/agricultural-and-biological-sciences/subhumid-zones" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">sub-humid zones</a> of West Africa.</p><p>These trees and shrubs have been left out of previous tabulations of carbon-processing worldwide forests. Says Brandt, "Trees outside of forested areas are usually not included in climate models, and we know very little about their carbon stocks. They are basically a white spot on maps and an unknown component in the global carbon cycle."</p><p>In addition to being valuable climate-change information, the research can help facilitate strategic development of the region in which the vegetation grows due to a greater understanding of local ecosystems.</p>
Trained for trees<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDU2MDQ3MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNTk5NTI3NH0.fR-n1I2DHBIRPLvXv4g0PVM8ciZwSLWorBUUw2wc-Vk/img.jpg?width=980" id="e02c0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="79955b13661dca8b6e19007935129af1" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Credit: Martin Brandt/University of Copenhagen<p>There's been an assumption that there's hardly enough vegetation outside of forested areas to be worth counting in areas such as this one. As a result the study represents the first time a significant number of trees — likely in the hundreds of millions when shrubs are subtracted from the overall figure — have been catalogued in the drylands region.</p><p>Members of the university's Department of Computer Science trained a machine-learning module to recognize trees by feeding it thousands of pictures of them. This training left the AI be capable of spotting trees in the tiny details of satellite images supplied by NASA. The task took the AI just hours — it would take a human years to perform an equivalent analysis.</p><p>"This technology has enormous potential when it comes to documenting changes on a global scale and ultimately, in contributing towards global climate goals," says co-author Christian Igel. "It is a motivation for us to develop this type of beneficial artificial intelligence."</p><p>"Indeed," says Brandt says, "I think it marks the beginning of a new scientific era."</p>
Looking ahead and beyond<p>The researchers hope to further refine their AI to provide a more detailed accounting of the trees it identifies in satellite photos.</p><p>The study's senior author, Rasmus Fensholt, says, "we are also interested in using satellites to determine tree species, as tree types are significant in relation to their value to local populations who use wood resources as part of their livelihoods. Trees and their fruit are consumed by both livestock and humans, and when preserved in the fields, trees have a positive effect on crop yields because they improve the balance of water and nutrients."</p><p>Ahead is an expansion of the team's tree hunt to a larger area of Africa, with the long-term goal being the creation of a more comprehensive and accurate global database of trees that grow beyond the boundaries of forests.</p>
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- The fine structure constant has mystified scientists since the 1800s.
- The number 1/137 might hold the clues to the Grand Unified Theory.
- Relativity, electromagnetism and quantum mechanics are unified by the number.
Younger Americans support expanding the Supreme Court and serious political reforms, says new poll.
- Americans under 40 largely favor major political reforms, finds a new survey.
- The poll revealed that most would want to expand the Supreme Court, impose terms limits, and make it easier to vote.
- Millennials are more liberal and reform-centered than Generation Z.