Japan's legislature, the Diet, has just passed the so-called Law for the Promotion of Commercial Activities Related to the Exploration and Exploitation of Space Resources.
After the United States, Luxembourg and the United Arab Emirates, the country known as the "land of cherry blossoms" is the fourth nation to lay the legal foundations that favour the incursion of its companies into the commercial exploitation of the asteroids that swarm the cosmos. Some contain significant amounts of nickel, iron and cobalt, heavy elements such as uranium and thorium, precious metals such as gold, platinum and rhodium, rare earths and other as yet unknown minerals.
The recently approved provision is the starting signal for the Asian country's private industry to embark on a long-term path and to obtain the necessary official support. The goal is to be able to undertake, alone or in cooperation, major projects to search for, extract and utilise resources of strategic interest beyond our planet.
Under the umbrella of Japan's international space agreements, the new provision allows Japanese companies and private capital to access, search for, find, exploit and obtain ownership of minerals extracted from the surface and subsurface of the Moon, Mars or other outer bodies.
The new regulation partially modifies some of the provisions of the 2016 Space Activities Act, but maintains most of its content in force. Among the new features is the fact that the Executive commits to launching a consultation and information service to provide technical advice to its industrialists in order to strengthen their international competitiveness. However, it maintains that any type of ultraterrestrial activity requires prior authorisation from the Tokyo government.
Although it will not come into force until the end of December, the law adopted by the Diet represents a very important qualitative leap for the Tokyo authorities' space ambitions. It represents the culmination of the work that the current prime minister, 73-year-old Yoshihide Suga, has given to the strategic vision undertaken by his party colleague and predecessor in office, Shinzo Abe, who ruled the country for almost eight years, from late December 2012 to mid-September 2020.
At the forefront of global robotic technology, Japanese institutions and companies have experience in extracting, storing and transferring alien riches to Earth. This has been demonstrated on a small scale by the Hayabusa 2 science mission, which in early December 2020 returned from its exploration mission with a few grams of dust from the asteroid Ryugu, 300 million kilometres from our Blue Planet.
Barack Obama in the White House, the United States pioneered legislation authorising its citizens and American societies to "explore, exploit and own" the riches they can extract from asteroids, the Moon or any other celestial body. It is the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, which dates from November 2015.
President Obama's initiative was followed by the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Economic Affairs of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, Étienne Schneider. In July 2017 he sponsored a law guaranteeing companies registered in the small country ownership over minerals, hydrocarbons or water they can extract on asteroids or celestial bodies.
The measure was complemented the following year with the creation of the Luxembourg Space Agency, which together with the country's large satellite communications operator - the European Satellite Society, SES - acts as a tractor for the small national space industry.
The third nation to take a step in the same direction was the Union of Arab Emirates, with a similar intentionality to that of the Grand Duchy. Its Space Law of early 2020 is the first in the Arab and Islamic world to promote private sector participation, regulate property rights over mining operations and commercial outer space activities, while encompassing the legal environment for space activities.
Do the four laws comply with international law? The so-called Outer Space Treaty of 1967 states that "space (...), including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall not be subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, use or occupation, or in any other manner". It is because of the aforementioned provision that in the four legislations that contemplate space mining, property rights affect only the "extracted resources and not the celestial bodies", stresses the president of the Spanish Association of Aeronautic and Space Law (AEDAE), Elisa González Ferreiro.
And what is Russia's position? The Kremlin has been caught on the hop and has taken a contrary position. The director general of the Russian Space Agency, Dimitri Rogozin, said at the 2021 Global Space Exploration Conference held in mid-June in St Petersburg that the regulation of ultra-terrestrial mining activities "is still a very thorny issue". So far, China and India are also not in favour, while most European nations remain on the sidelines.