Asteroid mining is a hot topic right now, at least among space law experts and the private companies eying the moon and other celestial bodies for potential natural resources.
But who has the right to extract those resources, and who owns them once they return to Planet Earth?
That’s one of the many questions Cleveland-Marshall College of Law Professor Mark Sundahl debated this week with other space aficionados during a meeting of the International Astronomical Union’s in Adelaide, Australia. And it’s a question he will continue to explore as the director the law school’s new Global Space Law Center—a first-of-its kind law school center devoted exclusively to space law.
A handful of other law schools already have centers or programs that cover space law, Sundahl said, but each are part of broader academic initiatives that also examine air law and related topics. Cleveland-Marshall’s center is the only one thus far to focus entirely on space.
Such a center is long overdue, according to Sundahl, particularly as private companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX have rushed to expand into space tourism, exploration, and other ventures.
“The entire paradigm is shifting now,” he said.
Space is now a $300 billion industry, and Sundahl expects that figure to more than triple within the next decade—which means more work for lawyers with space expertise. “Where there is space, there will be lawyers involved,” Sundahl said.
Take asteroid mining as an example. Many companies are interested in the ideas of harvesting natural resources from elsewhere in the galaxy, Sundahl said, and they have some deep-pocketed financiers including Hollywood director James Cameron and Google co-founder Larry Page. But without any certainty about the regulatory and legal questions surrounding the theoretical practice and who could actually profit from it, further investment is unlikely, he added.
“Do we want a new space race, a new gold rush?” Sundahl said. “Or do we want to preserve outer space, and all the wealth and the future of human expansion into space? Do we want to prevent private companies from exploiting it? That’s the question of the day. There’s a lot of debate.”
Hence, asteroid mining is one example of where the law will need to pave the way, rather than trail behind innovation, he said.
Space law is largely a regulatory practice with no shortage of governmental agencies involved. Launching a rocket requires the approval of the Federal Aviation Association. The Federal Communications Commission and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also regulate the telecommunications, navigation, and remote sensing industries that utilize space satellites. And that’s just domestically. Bodies like the International Telecommunication Union determine who can use certain frequencies in specific areas of the planet.
The U.S. Department of Defense also takes a keen interest in space initiatives, and the U.S. Department of State is constantly negotiating agreements and understandings with other nations regarding space issues, Sundahl said.
The new law school center is designed to help law students position themselves for careers in space law, serve as a resource to space law attorneys, and weigh in on space law policy matters.
Sundahl has taught a course on space law at Cleveland-Marshall for 10 years, but next summer will offer it in an online format that allows students and attorneys from around the globe to participate.
The center will also release a free, electronic space law resource guide for attorneys and others interested in the topic. Finally, the center will convene a research council of students and attorney advisors that will produce white papers on space law topics and weigh in on policy matters.
Sundahl hopes to offer an LL.M. and a doctorate in space law down the line.
In fact, he’s planning a sabbatical next academic year in order to write the first law school textbook on space law.
“I think more law schools will start picking this up because it’s a hot, timely, and important topic,” he said.