Humans Are Revisiting the Moon—and the Rules of Spacefaring
The moon’s about to become a busy place. Following the Artemis 1 launch scheduled for next week, on subsequent missions NASA and its partners will send astronauts to explore the surface and assemble a station in lunar orbit. China’s and Russia’s space agencies plan to survey the moon’s water ice and build a shared research station. And companies like Astrobotic and Moon Express seek to send landers, experiments, and eventually cargo for paying customers.
Yet laws governing space exploration haven’t changed much in decades, despite rapidly increasing activity and competition. The Outer Space Treaty, a crucial agreement hashed out by negotiators from once-fledgling spacefaring nations, is now 55 years old—it was written before Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong had even set foot on the moon. That treaty stated that anyone can use space but no one owns it, and that exploration should be done to benefit all people. It also prohibited nuclear weapons in space. But it included few details, leaving it open to interpretation.During the Trump administration, US officials drafted the Artemis Accords—rules for lunar exploration which, although developed by a single nation, could shape the future of moon outposts, colonies, and space mining. The administration announced the accords in May 2020, at a time when it wasn’t even clear whether the Artemis program would continue under a different president. But now these issues are no longer abstract: NASA engineers declared on Monday that the Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft will depart on August 29 for an uncrewed mission to orbit the moon. And the agency has already chosen some candidate landing spots for astronauts’ return to the lunar surface in 2025 or 2026—all near sites on the south pole that may harbor much-needed water ice.The accords lay out a US-led vision for exploring the moon and beyond—their scope includes Mars, comets, and asteroids—with some guidelines for what future robotic spacecraft and astronauts should and shouldn’t do. For example, actors are supposed to use space only for peaceful purposes, share scientific data with the public, and demarcate safety zones around their lunar activities. The accords also elevate commerce to the same level as scientific exploration.So far, 21 countries have joined the accords, including most recently France and Saudi Arabia, as well as frequent NASA partners Japan, Canada, Italy, and the United Kingdom. Notably, China and Russia have not. Nor has Germany, a key member country of the European Space Agency.Unlike previous international agreements, the accords are not a treaty—but they could become de facto guidelines in lieu of more formal laws. “The Artemis Accords are more of a declaratory policy for the United States: ‘This is how we intend to act on the moon, and these are our principles we’re going to follow,’” says Kaitlyn Johnson, deputy director of the Aerospace Security Project at the nonprofit Center for Strategic and International Studies. “But the accords are gaining more importance as more countries sign onto them, especially big spacefaring nations.”Most PopularsciencePolio Is Back in the US and UK. Here’s How That HappenedMaryn McKennagearThe 12 Best Electric Bikes for Every Kind of RideAdrienne SoscienceThese Trees Are Spreading North in Alaska. That’s Not GoodMatt SimongearThe Best Laptop Backpacks for Work (and Life)Medea GiordanoDean Cheng, an expert on China’s space program at the Heritage Foundation, agrees that the accords began with the US unilaterally laying out a legal framework and then cobbling together bilateral agreements with other countries—and he points out that they are mostly close allies. “The Artemis Accords are basically a ‘coalition of the willing’—if you can still use that term without irony—of countries saying ‘We’re all interested in joining with the US, and we’re in agreement with the rules,’” Cheng says, referring to the term former President George W. Bush used to describe the international coalition that invaded Iraq.The accords could carry more weight as more countries join, making some practices universal. Those could include space powers working together to notify each other of planned lunar missions, or to limit junk in orbit. It’s akin to the work that diplomats at the United Nations have been doing to negotiate “norms of behavior” in space.The US government is essentially trying to persuade others of its view of the Outer Space Treaty, which predates the space industry and efforts to extract space resources, says Timiebi Aganaba, a space governance expert at Arizona State University in Phoenix. “By pushing their interpretation, and then through these bilateral arrangements, the US is trying to get other people to buttress that perspective. And then they’re going to make the argument that this is representing custom,” she says.Chinese and Russian officials have criticized the Artemis Accords, likening them to colonialism or to a program “resembling NATO,” and they have stated that they have no intention of joining. These two countries are major players in space. Although Russia’s space program may be in some jeopardy thanks to the sanctions and partnership losses that followed its invasion of Ukraine, it has long been a space superpower. Meanwhile, the Chinese space program has grown rapidly over the past two decades, and its lunar exploration program, known as Chang’e, could be seen as a rival to Artemis. The nation’s upcoming plans for the moon include launching a sample return mission, orbiting a spacecraft, sending a rover, and then eventually building a lunar research station in cooperation with Russia. (Like Artemis, Chang’e is named after a goddess.) As China develops its moon missions, the country’s space program will continue doing its own thing, rather than joining the Artemis Accords, says Cheng: “China is saying, ‘We’re going to make our own rules.’” But China may adopt some best practices from the accords, he adds.The agreements appear friendly to the private space industry. They build on the Obama administration’s Space Act of 2015 and former president Trump’s executive order in 2020, both of which sought to promote the private sector and facilitate mining on the moon and asteroids. They clarify that no nation can claim territory in space as its own, though they can dig up resources for their own use, like ice, which can be used for propellants and drinking water, and minerals, which could become the materials for 3D-printed structures.Most PopularsciencePolio Is Back in the US and UK. Here’s How That HappenedMaryn McKennagearThe 12 Best Electric Bikes for Every Kind of RideAdrienne SoscienceThese Trees Are Spreading North in Alaska. That’s Not GoodMatt SimongearThe Best Laptop Backpacks for Work (and Life)Medea GiordanoIf astronauts need to grab some lunar 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 Artemis Accords’ effect on international space law. “What the Outer Space Treaty allows is using resources if it’s in support of a scientific mission. The Artemis missions are by definition scientific missions, so there is nothing unlawful for the US or other international partners taking part,” 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 frequently award contracts to private companies, and some of them are participating in the Artemis program. If these companies have their own designs on the moon, that could create a legal gray area. At the moment, Deplano argues, there’s nothing to stop NASA partners like SpaceX or Blue Origin from developing technologies while using government investment funds, and then reusing those technologies separately—while using the moon’s extremely limited ice and desirable landing spots for their own commercial purposes. That means companies from nations with advanced space programs, like the US and its partners, could get a head start toward benefiting from moon exploration. “This is essentially a privileged environment, which would allow certain portions of the world to develop much faster than others—developing the technology and know-how which would allow the commercial exploitation of those resources,” Deplano says.Aganaba also foresees a possible legal clash over private mining in the future. The Moon Agreement of 1979, which was negotiated at the UN and signed by 18 countries, beginning with mostly Latin American and Eastern European nations, puts more stringent limits on mining, stating that “the moon and its natural resources are the common heritage of mankind.” This perspective would complicate private companies’ efforts to extract and use those resources. The US and most major spacefaring nations didn’t sign the Moon Agreement—but Aganaba points out 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 research institute Project Ploughshares based in Waterloo, Ontario, will be watching how the Artemis Accords apply in practice when it comes to protecting the moon itself. The accords include a narrow 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 orbit but not conserving space resources, West says. For example, they don’t prohibit anyone from entirely scouring a crater for 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 accords only apply the concept of global “benefits” to science, not to the profits a company might gain by, say, mining lunar ice. “What does it mean to have universal benefit, for things to benefit all humankind?” West asks. “That's a broad principle, but it’s not dictated in practice. Traditionally, that has meant the sharing of scientific information, but it hasn’t meant financial benefits.”While the Artemis Accords reflect the US’s current vision for the moon, it’s unclear how future international missions will play out, or whether 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 are making the rules. There’s not a lot of equity there.”