Congress passed a bill this week that opened up the future of mining in space.
Congress passed a bill this week that opened up the future of mining in space. - 
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People complain all the time about Congress not getting things done until the last possible minute. However, a bill about the future of mining with bipartisan support passed this week.  It’s not just any mining-- it’s space mining. A handful of companies want to mine resources from the moon and asteroids. 

Ian Christensen is project manager at the Secure World Foundation, which promotes international collaboration to manage space resources.

"There are quite a number of asteroids, it’s in the tens of thousands," he said, speaking of the resources in space that could potentially be mined. "And most of the ones that you hear folks talking about now are what are known as near earth asteroids, and those are asteroids that either cross or come near our own orbit at similar distances to what the moon is at."

Christensen said these asteroids are pretty valuable real estate. Some have ice, or iron ore, others contain precious metals like gold and platinum.

But before companies make the investments to mine these resources, they first want legal clarity on an important question, according to Chris Lewicki. He is president of Planetary Resources, one of the companies that wants to mine asteroids.

“Can you own the material that you extract from an asteroid?” he asks.

The U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act would answer "yes" to that question. Lewicki says his company is ready to go.

"We anticipate being able to send the first commercial mission out to a near earth asteroid before the end of this decade, he said, "extracting its resources like water, hydrogen and oxygen soon after."

But the legislation does have some ambiguity, according to Jim Dustan, a space lawyer at Mobius Legal Group.

"It talks about owning the rights to resources that are, quote, 'obtained,' and it doesn’t define what obtained means," he said, pointing out it's not clear if a company could remotely scan an asteroid and claim its resources, or if it has to start digging. Dunstan agrees that space mining isn't far in the future.

"I would probably say maybe 15 years from now, someone will actually go and put the equivalent of a pick into an asteroid and dislodge a rock," he predicted, saying mining on the moon may come even sooner. Though it will probably be robots with pickaxes, not humans.

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