But more discussions and research convinced Mr. Schneider this was a promising possibility.
For Planetary Resources, the first wave of development is to culminate in a doughnut-shape spacecraft heading on a prospecting mission to a near-Earth asteroid in 2020.
Sometime after that, the company hopes to mine in earnest — for seemingly mundane water ice. But water, in addition to potentially providing something to drink for astronauts, can be split into hydrogen and oxygen. Both can be used as rocket propellent; the oxygen, of course, also can provide air to breathe.
As a business, Planetary Resources is betting that by the time it extracts water from an asteroid, there will be a customer like NASA interested in buying water, hydrogen and oxygen.
Eventually, the company aims to extract platinum, currently worth more than $900 an ounce, and other precious metals.
To make these pursuits easier, Luxembourg passed a space law that took effect this summer. Planetary Resources has set up its European office there. Moves like this one are in part motivating policymakers in the United States to devote more attention to American laws that currently govern commercial space activities.
Revising Space Law
Ambiguities in the Outer Space Treaty currently create uncertainty over whether anyone can profit from such business ventures. Article II in particular states, “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.”
If the United States is prohibited from appropriating a celestial body, is a private company allowed to appropriate a mineral mined out of a celestial body? The Moon Treaty, finalized in 1979, declared that any resources from space should be shared among all nations, but most countries, including the United States, never signed or ratified it.
Two years ago, Congress passed and President Obama signed a law that said private companies can own and sell what they extract, although, abiding by the language of the Outer Space Treaty, the companies cannot claim ownership of the celestial body itself.
This year, Congress is revisiting the Outer Space Treaty again, hoping to boost nascent space companies looking to push outward into the solar system.
Republicans in Congress have said they want the new space ventures to thrive in “permissionless innovation,” similar to the ethos that nourished new enterprises on the internet. This spring, the House science committee packed those ideas into a bill that has been sent to the full House.
It would put the regulatory power in an Office of Space Commerce, which would have 60 days to decide whether to approve or deny a company’s application. The full House has not yet taken up the bill, and the Senate is still working on its version.
Officials at Moon Express and Planetary Resources say they do not want unfettered freedom in space, nor do they seek withdrawal from the Outer Space Treaty.