Humans Are Revisiting the Moon—and the Rules of Spacefaring

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If astronauts need to grab some moon ice on a future Artemis mission, that won’t be a problem from a legal perspective, says Rossana Deplano, a researcher at the University of Leicester in the UK who has extensively studied the effect of the agreements of Artemis on international space law. “What the Outer Space Treaty allows is to use resources if it’s in support of a scientific mission. Artemis missions are, by definition, scientific missions, so there’s nothing illegal about States participating in them United States or other international partners,” he says.

But the treaty also says that space exploration must be carried out “for the benefit of all peoples”. NASA and the European Space Agency usually award contracts to private companies, some of which are involved in the Artemis program. If these companies have their own designs on the Moon, this could create a legal gray area. At the moment, Deplano argues, there is nothing to prevent NASA partners like SpaceX or Blue Origin from developing technologies while using government investment funds and then repurposing those technologies separately, while using the extremely limited ice on the Moon and desirable landing sites for their own commercial purposes. .

This means that companies from countries with advanced space programs, such as the United States and its partners, could have an advantage in profiting from lunar exploration. “This is essentially a privileged environment, which would allow certain parts of the world to develop much faster than others, developing the technology and knowledge that would enable the commercial exploitation of these resources,” says Deplano.

Aganaba also foresees a possible legal clash over private mining in the future. The Moon Accord of 1979, which was negotiated at the UN and signed by 18 countries, starting mostly with Latin American and Eastern European nations, places stricter limits on mining, stating that “the moon and its natural resources are the common heritage of humanity”. .” This prospect would complicate the efforts of private companies to extract and use these resources. The United States and most major space nations did not sign the Moon Accord, but Aganaba notes that it has a similar number of signatories to the Artemis Accords, so it’s hard to say which will carry more weight.

Jessica West, a space security researcher at the Waterloo, Ont.-based research institute Project Ploughshares, will look at how the Artemis agreements are put into practice when it comes to protecting the moon itself. The agreements include a limited definition of “heritage” sites to be preserved, specifically Apollo-era landing sites, but not the lunar landscape. They also call for “sustainability” practices, which are limited to preventing more debris from accumulating in Earth’s orbit, but not to conserving space resources, West says. For example, they do not prohibit anyone from completely draining a crater in search of ice, depriving future generations and less advanced space programs of a crucial resource, or visibly altering the appearance of the moon in the night sky.

And the agreements only apply the concept of global “benefits” to science, not to the benefits a company might make from, say, mining lunar ice. “What does it mean to have a universal benefit, so that things benefit all mankind?” West asks. “This is a broad principle, but it is not dictated in practice. Traditionally, this has meant sharing scientific information, but it has not meant financial benefits.”

While the Artemis deals reflect the current US vision for the moon, it’s unclear how future international missions will play out or whether concerns about inequality will grow, says the Aerospace Security Project’s Johnson. “There’s always this challenge of colonialism and first-mover advantage,” he says. “Right now, rich countries have access to the moon and are making the rules. There’s not a lot of fairness.”

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