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Space Law Society at Harvard Law School Hosts Panel on Ethics of Space Mining

The Harvard Law School Space Law Society hosted a panel on space mining to kick off the fifth annual Space Week.
The Harvard Law School Space Law Society hosted a panel on space mining to kick off the fifth annual Space Week. By Truong L. Nguyen
By Francesco Efrem Bonetti and Tilly R. Robinson, Contributing Writers

The Harvard Law School Space Law Society hosted a conversation on the ethical and legal concerns of space mining with three space policy experts in Wasserstein Hall on Monday.

The talk kicked off the fifth annual Space Week, a series of outreach events held by the Space Consortium, an organization of space-focused faculty and student groups at Harvard, MIT, and other Boston-area universities.

Boston College space law professor Alissa J. Haddaji, who founded the Space Consortium, moderated the discussion.

The panelists inclided Erika Nesvold, a co-founder of the nonprofit JustSpace Alliance, which advocates for equity and ethics in space; Frans G. von der Dunk, a space law professor at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln; and Michelle L.D. Hanlon, an air and space law instructor at the University of Mississippi.

During the discussion, Nesvold discussed the nature of space mining and its significance to humanity.

“Mining in general is extracting valuable non-living material from the environment,” Nesvold said. “On Earth, that can be anything from salts to coal to diamonds to metals. But in space the kinds of things we're interested in are platinum-group metals from asteroids because they’re rare on Earth.”

Nesvold also said some resources — like water — might be extracted to support development in space.

“NASA’s current ‘Moon to Mars’ program means that they want to go back to the moon first through the Artemis program — talking about Artemis I and II — and that would teach us a lot of things about how to live in space, how to extract resources, how to use those resources,” she said.

Hanlon described legal concerns surrounding space mining, explaining that Article II of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty prohibits nations from claiming sovereignty over any part of outer space. But according to Hanlon, 23 nations have signed the Artemis Accords, a 2020 agreement that states resource extraction is not the same as claiming territory — which would make space mining legal under international law.

Hanlon said she expected space extraction would happen eventually regardless of legal uncertainty.

“If we are going to expand off of our Earth, we’re going to need to use resources,” she said. “The understanding that that is going to happen, I think, is clear. The question of what we call what our relationship with those resources is is an ethical one.”

Von der Dunk discussed balancing public and private interests, including “public interest in space, safety, security and international peace, the environment and sustainability and even science.”

“This general public interest of humankind should be preserved and protected, but has to be balanced with the bona fide interests of the private sector,” he said.

Nesvold challenged the idea that resources in space are unlimited.

“All the resources we’re talking about are finite resources. As much as people looking for investors want to talk about space being infinite and there being infinite resources, these are finite, limited resources, they’re not going to last forever,” Nesvold said. “How much do we owe it to future generations to not take everything valuable right now?”

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