Frans von der Dunk

The mission: Lasso a 500-ton asteroid, place it in orbit around the moon and send astronauts to study its composition.

And the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Space, Cyber and Telecommunications Law Program is paying attention. Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, chairman of the Senate Science and Space Subcommittee, announced the $100 million NASA-led project during a budget proposal meeting last week. Though the price tag has raised concerns for many, the legalities of the mission are on the mind of the faculty and alumni of UNL’s space law program.

The mission would take place in 2019, the Associated Press reported. It will involve a robotic spaceship sent to secure the 25-foot asteroid. Four astronauts would then be sent to explore the asteroid in 2021. President Barack Obama’s 2014 budget plan sets aside $78 million for the development of necessary technology to carry out the mission.

Jessica Tok, a 2009 graduate of UNL’s space law program who now works for United States Strategic Command, supports the initiative. During her time in the College of Law, she worked closely with the Association of Space Explorer’s standing committee on Near Earth Objects, or NEOs, and served as editor of the 2008 policy document, “Asteroid Threats: A Call for Global Response.” The document was then submitted to the United Nations’ Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, where it informed recommendations about locating and warning potentially hazardous NEOs.

Tok cited the recently observed proximity to earth of the asteroid DA14 and the February meteor explosion over Chelyabinsk, Russia, as the impetus behind the budget request. The incidents, Tok said, “were poignant reminders that we can, and should, do something about the global threat posed by NEOs.”

The proposed mission to capture and return an asteroid is a step in the right direction, Tok said.

“These efforts have been underfunded for a long time,” she said.

Tok pointed to the fact that NASA, with a budget of $18.7 billion, only allocated $20.5 million for NEO efforts in 2012.

“At this rate, it will take until 2030 to find 90 percent of the 140-meter NEOs,” Tok said. “It’s an issue of competing priorities.”

Frans von der Dunk, a professor in the space law program that currently has seven in-residence and five online students, said the program as a whole supports the NASA mission.

“(The mission) is a logical follow-up to an earlier congressional decision to require NASA to discover and map asteroids of major sizes, which could potentially collide with earth,” von der Dunk said.

The next steps, he said, include studying the orbits and composition of these asteroids as well as the likelihood of collision with earth. Von der Dunk believes the mission will increase understanding of these objects and perhaps even identify new materials that can be used on Earth. Though collisions with Earth are a concern that Tok and von der Dunk recognize are a reason for the mission, von der Dunk says the threat is not eminent.

“We should not lose one night of sleep over this, as there is nothing so far which poses an immediate threat,” von der Dunk said. “But knowing as far ahead as possible what might hit us would hugely enhance the changes of successful and less costly missions to deflect any risk.”

As the secretariat for the Association of Space Explorer’s Panel of Experts, the space law program has been involved in discussions and analysis regarding NEOs, said von der Dunk. The program does not currently have any NEO-related projects, but von der Dunk said he will raise the issue of the NASA mission for students who may be interested in writing a thesis on it.

In 2008, von der Dunk published an article in “Proceedings of the International Institute of Space Law about NEOs.” He explored the legal questions surrounding the composition of the objects, something he still sees as a concern.

“If we allow private entities to take possession of NEOs and their materials for commercial purposes, that may go some way to entice private enterprise to go out there for a combination of commercial and deflection purposes,” he said.

The NASA mission raises questions regarding the possible commercial exploitation of the asteroids. These new questions and issues, said von der Dunk, include the legal status of asteroids, the right to exploit or obtain ownership of the extracted materials and the liability as well as licensing and certification to do so.

“Currently the law is far from clear,” von der Dunk said.

Von der Dunk said the UN committee on space matters is hashing out these issues, though he wouldn’t make personal predictions about what the legal restrictions will entail.

“I can only hope soon there will be a bit more clarity as to where the UN, or more precisely member states concerned, will be going in this respect,” he said.

There are five UN treaties regarding asteroids and other NEOs, as well as many other ad hoc international treaties and agreements regarding space laws. The multiple levels of legalities can become complicated, von der Dunk admitted. It takes more than 30 hours of lecture for him to introduce it all to students.

Though complicated, the issues are something both Tok and van der Dunk are passionate about. Tok looks forward to the advancement of the NASA mission.

“It’s a really exciting thing,” she said.