By Ethan Wolff-Mann
November 12, 2015
Astronaut John W. Young, commander of the Apollo 16 lunar landing mission, leaps from the lunar surface as he salutes the United States flag at the Descartes landing site near Stone Mountain during the first Apollo 16 extravehicular activity (EVA), April 16, 1972. The Lunar Module "Orion" is at the left with the Lunar Roving Vehicle is parked beside it.
Charles M. Duke Jr.—NASA

As of this week, if you somehow make it to the Moon and find valuable minerals, you get to keep the bounty. On Tuesday, Congress passed H.R. 2262, a “Finders Keepers” law that allows someone who discovers resources on another planet, galaxy, or universe to claim them legally.

The idea is to encourage private businesses to undertake space exploration, which until recently was the exclusive domain of government agencies. Thanks to the Commercial Space Launch Act of 1984 and its amendments, companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic are free to make Millennium Falcons and explore galaxies far, far away.

While you can now set up a private gold mine on the Moon or Mars, you still can’t plant a flag and claim sovereignty over the planet like a conquistador. According to international law, extraterrestrial real estate can’t be claimed (though some con artists have hawked deeds for lunar land).

The move to allow companies to keep their spoils came from both sides of the aisle and lasts until 2025, which means that it will likely have to be renewed to have any real effect. Still, it’s a small carrot in front of private space exploration.

“H.R. 2262 facilitates a pro-growth environment for the developing commercial space sector,” said Texas Rep. Lamar Smith (R), who chairs the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee.

The bill also extends the “learning period” given to the FAA—which is when the agency figures out what it needs to regulate—until 2023. With support for a celestial Gold Rush until then, Congress hopes it will spur on more space investment.

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