NASA's moon-exploring coalition is starting to come together.
Eight nations have signed the Artemis Accords, a set of principles outlining the responsible exploration of Earth's nearest neighbor, NASA officials announced today (Oct. 13).
The path is now clear for those eight nations — Australia, Canada, Japan, Luxembourg, Italy, the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates and (unsurprisingly) the U.S. — to participate in NASA's Artemis program of crewed lunar exploration. Artemis aims to land two astronauts near the lunar south pole in 2024 and establish a sustainable human presence on and around the moon by the end of the decade — bold goals that NASA aims to achieve with the help of international and private-sector partners.
"This is just the beginning," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said during a call with reporters yesterday (Oct. 12). "These accords are going to grow from here, and we're excited about bringing on new partners as we move forward."
The Artemis Accords serve as a preamble to bilateral, government-to-government agreements that participating nations will sign with the U.S. Those future agreements will lay out each country's specific contribution to the Artemis program, while the newly signed accords "establish norms of behavior and rules for space operations," Bridenstine said.
For example, signatories to the Artemis Accords affirm, among other things, that they will conduct all space activities peacefully and in accordance with international law; help protect space heritage, such as the Apollo landing sites; publicly release scientific data in a timely manner; render aid to astronauts who need it; and make their hardware and other systems "interoperable" to maximize cooperative use.
The Accords are designed to defuse off-Earth conflicts before they flare up, Bridenstine said.
Bridenstine said that Artemis' ambitious timeline precluded the possibility of drawing up an all-encompassing multilateral agreement through the United Nations or other international organization. But he stressed that the Artemis Accords are fully consistent with pre-existing treaties, including the most important one — 1967's Outer Space Treaty (OST), which forms the basis for international space law.
Indeed, the Accords will "operationalize" the OST, giving it some much-needed teeth, said Bridenstine and Mike Gold, acting associate administrator for NASA's Office of International and Interagency Relations.
"If you want to join the Artemis journey, nations must abide by the Outer Space Treaty and other norms of behavior that will lead to a more peaceful, safe and prosperous future in space exploration, not just for NASA and its partners but for all of humanity to enjoy," Gold said on yesterday's call.
The Artemis Accords state that the use of space resources can benefit humanity. And NASA plans to exploit lunar resources extensively during the Artemis program, especially the water ice that seems to be plentiful on the permanently shadowed floors of lunar craters. This ice can not only provide life support for astronauts, it can also be split into its constituent hydrogen and oxygen, the chief components of rocket fuel, agency officials have stressed.
Such mining activities will be conducted in full compliance with the OST, the Artemis Accords stress. (The OST prohibits any nation from claiming sovereignty over the moon or any other celestial object. But it does seem to allow the extraction and sale of space resources, many space-law experts say. And the U.S. Congress passed a law in 2015 explicitly permitting American companies to mine and sell off-Earth resources.)
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NASA first announced the existence of the Artemis Accords in May of this year, but the agency didn't release the full text of the document until today. That's because NASA needed time to solicit and incorporate feedback from prospective international partners, Bridenstine and Gold said.
That feedback improved the Accords significantly, Gold said. For example, Japanese officials convinced NASA to extend the document's reach to activities conducted on and around comets and asteroids, he said. (The Accords already covered Mars as well as the moon; NASA intends for the Artemis work to serve as a stepping stone for crewed missions to the Red Planet in the 2030s.)
The current text of the Accords isn't necessarily the final one; amendments could be made in the future as needed, Bridenstine and Gold said.
The Artemis program is counting on substantial contributions from private industry as well as international partners. For instance, the lander that carries astronauts down to the lunar surface will be a commercial vehicle built by SpaceX, Dynetics or a team led by Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin.
Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.