NASA's ambitious plan to rope an asteroid could be illegal. The US space agency's plan is to lasso an asteroid and drag it into a stable orbit near the moon.
They hope to complete the mission by 2021 and allow astronauts to visit and study the asteroid. However, NASA's plan could be a violation of the 1972 Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects.
Space News spoke with several lawyers who specialize in space to ask their views on the legality of NASA's plan.
Law professor Matthew Schaefer, director of the Space, Cyber and Telecommunications Law Program at the University of Nebraska College of Law in Lincoln explained that NASA's goal "is certain to be lawful" under the treaty.
Shaefer explained that countries have the freedom to explore celestial bodies. Critics of his conclusion could look at the language in Article I of the OST, which requires "free access to all areas of celestial bodies." That likely means asteroids too.
Yahoo! News notes that Schaefer added that any claims of free access or nonsovereignty would only come about if NASA's lassoed asteroid is also targeted by another space agency.
And given the massive amount of asteroids in the galaxy, let alone the universe, that likely won't be an issue. So, the only way NASA's plan could run into legal trouble is if an error happens in the lassoing mission.
If the asteroid's new path ends up posing a danger to Earth or satellites put in space by other countries, the United States could be responsible for any damage. However, the laws don't specifically address moving an asteroid on purpose, since it has never been done before. Because of that, it is unclear if the country would see any legal ramifications if something goes wrong.
NASA's plan involves lassoing an asteroid that measures about 25 feet in width and weighs about 500 tons. Because it is relatively small, it would likely burn up in the Earth's atmosphere if something did go wrong.
[Image via NASA]