US government agencies are trying to establish temporary rules to govern private exploration of space beyond the low Earth orbit, including the Moon, which may see the arrival of the first private exploration probe in a year’s time.
Moon Express, founded by a group of Silicon Valley space entrepreneurs and one of the competitors in the Google Lunar XPRIZE, hopes to start commercial flights to the Earth’s only natural satellite in 2017, with the aim to enable commercial utilisation of lunar resources. However, there is currently no legal framework to govern such activities.
"We do not have formal authority today to deal with what happens in orbit or on other planetary terrestrial bodies," said George Nield, head of the Federal Aviation Administration's Office of Commercial Space Transportation.
"What is being looked at right now is a Band-Aid fix because the system is broken," Nield said at an American Bar Association space law forum in Washington on Wednesday.
The Outer Space Treaty, in force since 1967, binds signatories to oversee space activities of non-government entities within their jurisdiction. However, no US agency has authority to regulate commercial space activities outside of rocket launches, spacecraft re-entries into the atmosphere and operations of telecommunications and remote sensing satellites in Earth orbit.
Other countries are already working hard to provide a framework that would lure space entrepreneurs to relocate. Luxembourg last week announced it was partnering with two US companies interested in mining asteroids and set aside €200m to support the developments. The United Arab Emirates also intends to serve as a commercial space haven.
"We don't want to create the environment where there's a competitive advantage for payloads to go overseas," said space attorney Michael Gold, who chairs the FAA's commercial space advisory panel.
So far, only government agencies have flown satellites beyond Earth's orbit.
"No commercial company has ever asked to go outside of Earth orbit and go elsewhere before,” said Moon Express Chief Executive Bob Richards. “We're a pathfinder out of necessity."
The officials said the US Congress is considering a more permanent legal framework to govern future commercial missions to the Moon, Mars and other destinations beyond Earth's orbit.