Under any definition of ownership, the United States clearly owns the Apollo lunar samples. Any entity that can claim something as an exclusive resource, control its transport and distribution, and can exchange it for something else of value (in this case, other lunar samples), clearly owns that object. Russian lunar samples have been re-sold by private individuals, establishing that portions of a celestial body can be subject to ownership if they are removed from that celestial body — whether by governments or private parties — even if the celestial bodies themselves are not subject to appropriation.
This is the single most important legal precedent property rights in space, and should provide great comfort to those who wish to exploit the resources of outer space. It is also consistent with many commentators, who allege that the Outer Space Treaty’s prohibition on “appropriation” relates only to entire celestial bodies as they exist “in nature,” and that both individuals and nations can claim ownership of resources extracted from celestial bodies. The only real question, then, is the extent of this ownership: Can an entire asteroid be claimed if it is being mined?
Under the Outer Space Treaty, if a company is mining an asteroid, no other entity could come along and start mining on the other side if doing so could interfere with the first set of miners. If the asteroid were large enough to accommodate two independent mining operations, both could likely proceed, each gaining ownership of whatever material they extract. Thus, customary international law already gives would-be asteroid miners a sound basis for their business model.
But what if a mining company captured an asteroid, changing its orbit to bring it closer to Earth and thus make return of extracted materials easier? Would the entire asteroid belong to the mining company because the asteroid, as a whole, was “extracted” from its “natural” orbit — becoming more like a single rock or an artificial satellite than a moon or a planet?
The latter seems to be what Planetary Resources proposed last week. The issue is, if a body is moved by human action, is it any longer a “celestial body” under either the Outer Space Treaty or the Moon Treaty, or has it become a large sample retrieval? The issue is complicated by the fact that any mining activity that, by definition, involves removing portions of it, will almost inevitably change its orbit, per Sir Isaac’s Second Law of Motion. I say “almost” because in theory it would be possible to remove it by pulling it away with an external rocket, rather than reacting against the main body, but there would be no reason to take such measures, unless purely a legal one.