Moon Missions for Moon 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. Ultimately, the plan is to establish a long-term lunar base. Russia and China have also announced plans for a joint International Moon Research Station and invited international cooperation also. Multiple private missions are also being developed by companies such as: iSpace, Astrobotic and a handful of others.
These missions are intended to determine what resources are actually available on the moon, where they are located and how hard will it be to get them out. Currently, water is the most precious of these resources. Water is mainly found in the form of ice in shadowed craters in the polar regions. It is necessary for drinking and growing food, but when it is split into hydrogen and oxygen, it can also be used as fuel to power rockets either return to Earth or travel beyond the Moon.
Current research suggests that there are only a few small parts of the moon that both water and rare earth elements. This concentration of resources could pose a problem, as many of the planned missions will likely explore the same areas of the moon.
A dusty issue
The Last Man on the Moon, Apollo 17 Astronaut Eugene Cernan, Called Moon Dust”one of the most aggravating constraining facets of the lunar surface.” The moon is covered with a layer of fine dust and small, sharp rock fragments called regolith. Since there is virtually no atmosphere on the moon, regolith easily blown around when spacecraft landing or driving on the lunar surface.
Part of the 1969 Apollo 12 mission was to return to Earth pieces of Surveyor 3, an American spacecraft that landed on the moon in 1967 to study the surface. The Apollo 12 lunar module landed 170 meters away from Surveyor 3, but upon inspection, engineers found that particles blown through Apollo 12 exhaust pierced Surveyor 3’s surface. literally embed regolith in the hardware.
It’s not hard to imagine a lander or even a surface rover from one country getting too close to another country’s spacecraft and causing significant damage.
A need for rules
When efforts to return to the moon began to ramp up in the 2000s, NASA was so concerned about the destructive potential of lunar dust that it issued a series of recommendations to all spacefaring entities in 2011. Its purpose was to protect Apollo and other American objects on the lunar surface of historical and scientific value. Implementing the Recommendations”exclusion zones”, defined by NASA as “border areas that visiting spacecraft are not allowed to enter.” These suggestions are not enforceable against any entity or nation unless directly contracted with NASA.
The concept of these zones conflicts with the clear meaning and intent of Article II of the Outer Space Treaty. The article states that no area of space is subject to “national appropriation” through “use or occupation”. Creating an exclusion zone around a landing or mining site could certainly be considered an occupation.
However, the Outer Space Treaty offers a possible solution.
Article IX of the Outer Space Treaty requires that all activities in space be conducted “with due regard for the corresponding interests of others”. According to this philosophy, many countries are currently working on joint use of space resources.
To date, 21 countries have agreed to the Artemis chords, which use the Outer Space Treaty provision to support the development of “reporting and coordination” zones, also known as “safety zones”. While 21 countries is not an insignificant number, the accords do not currently include the major spacefaring nations China, Russia or India.
In June 2022, the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Space formed the Working Group on Legal Aspects of Space Activities. The mandate of this group is to develop and recommend principles related to the “exploration, exploitation and use of space resources”. While the group has yet to deal with substantive matters, at least one country not in the Artemis accords, Luxembourg, has already expressed an interest in promoting safety zones.
This working group is a perfect avenue through which security zones such as those described in the Artemis agreements could receive unanimous international support. For all moon typesa nonprofit organization I founded, made up of space experts and NASA veterans, is on a mission to establish protective zones around places of historical importance in space as a first version of safety zones. Although initially driven by the worsening lunar dust, safety zones could be a starting point for the development of a functional system for managing space resources and territory. Such action would protect important historical sites. It could also have the added benefit of considering resource management as a tool for conservation rather than exploitation.
Michelle LD Hanlon is a professor of air and space law at the University of Mississippi.