It’s been 50 years since man went to the moon, and even robots don’t go there very often. But Earth’s natural satellite is being invaded.
At least six countries and a host of private companies have publicly announced more than 250 missions to the Moon that will take place over the next decade. Many of these missions plan permanent lunar bases and aim to assess and begin using the Moon’s natural resources. In the short term, the resources will be used for lunar missions, but in the long term, the Moon and its resources will be essential for missions to other treasures of the solar system.
These lofty ambitions run into a looming legal issue. On Earth, possession and ownership of natural resources is based on territorial sovereignty. Conversely, Article II of the Outer Space Treaty—the 60-year-old agreement that governs human activity in space—forbids nations from claiming territory in space. This limitation includes the Moon, planets and asteroids. So how can we manage space resources?
I am a lawyer and I focus on the peaceful and sustainable use of space for the benefit of all humanity. I believe the 2020s will be recognized as the decade when humans became a true “space species” that used space resources to survive and thrive in space and on Earth. To build this future, the international community is working in various forums to develop a framework for managing space resources, starting with those from our nearest neighbor: the Moon.
Lunar Missions for Lunar Resources
The US-led Artemis program is a coalition of commercial and international partners whose primary goal is to return humans to the Moon by 2024, with the long-term goal of establishing a permanent lunar base. Russia and China also announced plans for an International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) and invited international cooperation. More private missions are also being developed by companies such as iSpace, Astrobotic and a handful of others.
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These missions aim to determine what resources are actually available on the Moon, where they are, and whether it will be difficult to extract them. Currently, the most valuable of these resources is water. Water is found mainly in the form of ice in shadowy craters in the polar regions. It is necessary for drinking and growing food. Split into hydrogen and oxygen, it can also be used as fuel for rockets that return to Earth or travel beyond the Moon.
Other valuable resources on the Moon include rare metals such as neodymium – used in magnets – and helium-3, which can be used to generate energy.
Current research suggests that only a few small areas of the Moon contain both water and rare earth elements. This concentration of resources could pose a problem, as many planned missions are likely to go to the same areas of the Moon to prospect.
It all starts with an annoying moon dust
The last man on the Moon, Apollo 17 astronaut Eugene Cernan, called lunar dust “one of the most annoying constraints on the lunar surface.” In fact, the Moon is covered in a layer of fine dust and small sharp pieces of rock, called regolith. Since there is virtually no atmosphere on the Moon, regolith is easily blown away by winds generated by spacecraft landing or taxiing on the surface.
Read more: Can we grow plants on the Moon? Clues with the samples brought back by Apollo
Part of the 1969 Apollo 12 mission involved bringing pieces of Surveyor 3, an American spacecraft that landed on the Moon in 1967 to study its surface, back to Earth. The Apollo 12 lunar module landed about 150 meters from Surveyor 3, but upon inspection, engineers found that particles blown by Apollo 12’s exhaust had perforated the surface of Surveyor 3, literally sinking regolith into the equipment.
Under these conditions, it is easy to imagine that a lander or rover (a surface vehicle) from one country could pass too close to another country’s spacecraft and cause significant damage.
A need for rules
When efforts to return to the Moon began to intensify in the 2000s, NASA was very concerned about the destructive potential of lunar dust. So much so that in 2011 it issued a series of recommendations for all space units. The goal was to protect Apollo and other American objects on the lunar surface that have historical and scientific value. The recommendations implement “exclusion zones,” defined by NASA as “boundary zones into which visiting spacecraft should not enter.” These proposals cannot be implemented with respect to an entity or a nation – unless it is tied directly to NASA by contract.
The very concept of these zones violates the literal meaning and intent of Article II of the Outer Space Treaty: this article states that no area of space is subject to “national ownership” by “use or occupation”. Establishing an exclusion zone around a landing site or a mining operation could certainly be considered a profession.
But the Outer Space Treaty potentially offers a solution.
Indeed, its Article IX requires that all activities in outer space be conducted “with due regard to the corresponding interests of others”. Following this philosophy, many nations are currently working towards a collaborative use of space resources.
To date, 21 nations have accepted the Artemis Agreements, which use this treaty provision relating to the consideration of the interests of others to promote the development of “notification and coordination zones”, also known as “security zones”. While having 21 signatories is not insignificant, the agreements currently do not include the major space nations China, Russia and India.
In June 2022, the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space established the Working Group on Legal Aspects of Activities in Space Resources. This group’s mandate is to develop recommendations of principles relating to the “exploration, exploitation and use of space resources”. Although the group has yet to address substantive issues, at least one country that has not signed the Artemis agreements, Luxembourg, has already expressed interest in promoting safe zones.
This working group appears to be a good way to achieve unanimous international support for the idea of safe zones such as those described in the Artemis agreements. For All Moon-kind, a non-profit organization that I founded, consisting of space experts and NASA veterans, has a mission to support the creation of protective zones around places of historical significance in space, as the first version of safe zones. Although initially powered by this pesky lunar dust, safe zones could be a starting point for the development of a functional system for managing resources and territory in space. Such action would protect important historical sites. It could also have the advantage of presenting resource management as a tool for conservation rather than exploitation.–