Humans revisit the moon — and the rules of space travel

If astronauts have to grab some lunar ice on a future Artemis mission, that’s not a legal issue, says Rossana Deplano, a researcher at the University of Leicester in the UK who has extensively researched the impact of the Artemis Accords on international space law. “What the Outer Space Treaty allows is the use of resources if it is in support of a scientific mission. The Artemis missions are scientific missions by definition, so participation by the US or other international partners is not unlawful,” she says.

But the treaty also says that space exploration should be carried out “for the benefit of all peoples.” NASA and the European Space Agency often contract out to private companies, some of which participate in the Artemis program. If these companies have their own designs on the moon, it could create a legal gray area. For now, Deplano argues, there’s nothing stopping NASA partners like SpaceX or Blue Origin from developing technology using government investment funds and then reusing those technologies separately — while using the moon’s extremely limited ice and coveted landing sites for their own commercial ones use purposes .

That means companies from nations with advanced space programs, like the US and its partners, could have a head start to capitalize on lunar exploration. “This is essentially a privileged environment that would allow certain parts of the world to develop much faster than others — the development of the technology and know-how that would enable the commercial exploitation of these resources,” says Deplano.

Aganaba also foresees a possible litigation over private mining in the future. The 1979 Lunar Accords, negotiated at the United Nations and signed by 18 countries, starting with mostly Latin American and Eastern European nations, establishes stricter limits on mining and states that “the moon and its natural resources are humanity’s common heritage.” .” This perspective would complicate efforts by private companies to extract and utilize these resources. The US and most major space nations have not signed the lunar accord – but Aganaba points out that there are 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 Project Plowshares research institute based in Waterloo, Ontario, will observe how the Artemis Accords are applied in practice when it comes to protecting the moon itself. The agreements include a narrow definition of “heritage sites” to be preserved – particularly Apollo-era landing sites, but not the lunar landscape. They also call for “sustainability practices” that are limited to preventing more garbage from accumulating in Earth orbit but do not conserve space resources, West says. For example, they do not prohibit anyone from fully scanning a crater for ice, depriving future generations and less advanced space programs of a crucial resource, or visibly changing the appearance of the moon in the night sky.

And the agreements only apply the concept of global “benefits” to science, not to the profits a company might make from mining moon ice, for example. “What does it mean to have universal utility, so that things will benefit all mankind?” asks Westen. “It’s a broad principle, but it’s not mandated in practice. Traditionally, this means sharing scientific information, but no financial benefits.”

While the Artemis Accords reflect the current US vision for the moon, it’s unclear how future international missions will pan out or if concerns about inequality will grow, says Johnson of the Aerospace Security Project. “There’s always this challenge of colonialism and first-mover advantage,” she says. “Right now, wealthy countries have access to the moon and they make the rules. There is not much equity there.”

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