The United States could start a "gold rush" with a new space exploration law covering bodies orbiting in the Solar System's asteroid belt.
Just as lawmakers in Washington provided a legal framework for the California Gold Rush in the mid-1800s, Congress and the administration have given the green light to encourage space mining.
On Nov. 25, President Barack Obama signed the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act to promote private exploration of space, something a few companies, like SpaceX and Orbital ATK, have already tackled with missions to re-supply the International Space Station and plans to go beyond Earth's orbit.
The law has a final section authorizing the appropriation of asteroids and other "space resources" by private individuals and companies if they develop the technology to reach and exploit the bodies, which are rich in minerals, such as platinum, gold and iron, and water.
The law's last section requires that the government not interfere with mining in space and clearly states that whoever is able to extract resources from an asteroid has the right to "own them, transport them, use them and sell them."
The United States does not claim sovereignty over asteroids, something that is banned under the Outer Space International Treaty, which, in principle, is not an obstacle for someone daring enough to stake rights to an asteroid.
Companies developing plans to mine asteroids, such as Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries, have celebrated passage of the law, which creates the legal framework for a business that could be extremely profitable and spur a gold rush of spatial magnitude.
These companies, created on a dream, are investing money and time in the development of spacecraft able to reach an asteroid and exploit its resources, in some cases moving them off their orbit.