NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine and engineer Kristine Davis at a press conference in 2019. Image: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images
The surface of the Moon has been relatively undisturbed by humans and robots over the past few decades. But nations around the world are bracing for a busier lunar landscape that may emerge in the coming decades.
A renewed interest in lunar missions, primarily stoked by NASA’s flagship Artemis program, raises thorny issues surrounding the extraction and utilization of extraterrestrial resources—aka “space mining”—that currently remain ambiguous in international space law.
In May, NASA announced that it is working on a new framework of principles, called the Artemis Accords, that outlines how “space resource extraction and utilization can and will be conducted under the auspices of the Outer Space Treaty,” a document established in 1967 that serves as the foundation of space law. A summary of the Artemis Accords is available on NASA’s website, but the actual agreement is still in negotiations with NASA’s international partners.
Meanwhile, an April 2020 executive order from the Trump administration rejected the idea of outer space as a global commons, and NASA recently announced that it would purchase lunar regolith from private companies that successfully access it.
A pair of researchers have now voiced concern that the emerging U.S. position on resource extraction could “make the United States—as the licensing nation for most of the world’s space companies—the de facto gatekeeper to the Moon, asteroids, and other celestial bodies,” according to an article published on Thursday in Science.
Planetary astronomer Aaron Boley and legal scholar Michael Byers, who serve as Canada Research Chairs at the University of British Columbia, argue in the article that “other nations need to speak up, now” about their objections to the U.S. approach to resource extraction, which they say could put “the safe development of space at risk.”
Without a multilateral approach, the team argued, off-Earth mining could lead to bad outcomes ranging from lax regulations, contamination of extraterrestrial resources, dangerous space debris, and even the possibility of accidental asteroid impacts on Earth.
Mike Gold, NASA’s acting associate administrator for the Office of International and Interagency Relations, called the article “factually inaccurate” and premature, given that the full text of the accords have not been finalized.
“The vast majority of what’s in the editorial is false and based on inaccuracies, in no small part because the text of the accords haven’t been publicly released yet,” Gold said in a call. “It’s been very frustrating to read these criticisms that are based on a document that the authors have never read.”
In an email, Byers said that the article was based on “multiple components” of U.S. space policy, not simply the Artemis Accords.
“Our article thus examines these methodical policy steps together, as a concerted effort to secure widespread acceptance of the U.S. preferred interpretation of space law as the international interpretation of space law,” Byers added.
The UBC researchers suggest that the initial rebuke of the accords by Dmitry Rogozin, director general of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, may be indicative of wider concerns in the international space community. Rogozin said that the Artemis program shows the U.S.’s “retreat from principles of cooperation and mutual support,” according to a CNBC post in July.
“So far, Russia is the only nation to have spoken out publicly,” Boley and Byers told VICE in a joint email. “But NASA’s approach could strongly depend on the U.S. election, so many nations might be waiting to see what happens in November.”
“We hope any trend away from multilateralism is temporary,” the team added. “This is one reason why NASA’s approach to space mining needs to be understood and opposed.”
Gold disputed the central argument that the Artemis Accords promote a national strategy over a multilateral approach to off-Earth resource extraction.
“The Artemis Accords are a common-ground document that we are using to try and unite signatories to the Outer Space Treaty to create a transparent, safe, peaceful, and prosperous future in space for all of us,” he said
Boley and Byers outline several risks that might stem from an uncoordinated approach to off-Earth resource extraction, including a “worst case scenario” in which a mining operation on an asteroid could end up deflecting the object’s trajectory—potentially toward Earth.
This is an extreme example, but it demonstrates that human activities in space have consequences back here on our planet. Ultimately, mitigating these risks will require a lot of international input and much more scientific research.
“Planetary defense is a grave concern,” Gold said. “Put aside the issues that [Boley and Byers] are raising with any kind of commercial activity, we just need to do much more to understand what near-Earth objects (NEOs) are out there to effectively provide planetary defense.”
Fortunately, there are many upcoming forums to develop these discussions further. The full text of the Artemis Accords will provide more clarity about the U.S. position on resource extraction, and “will belong as much to the international community” as it will to NASA, according to Gold.
Boley and Byers also expect the issue to be hashed out in depth at the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space in 2021.
“An international framework will set the standards and provide the required transparency,” the UBC researchers said. “It will also give a voice to nations that cannot operate in space now, but will in the future. Scientists, engineers, and industry can do the rest.”