SPACE.com Columnist Leonard David

Can Antarctica serve as a model for international cooperation on the moon?

the moon hangs in the sky above a barren hillside covered in thick snow
The moon sets above glacier-covered summit of a mountain peak rising along the Antarctic Peninsula. (Image credit: Getty Images/Paul Souders)

Multiple nations are targeting the moon as an off-Earth destination for long-term human presence. 

For NASA, getting a literal "leg-up" on the moon once again via its Artemis program is highly touted as the way to tromp and train for marching on to Mars. In many ways, such a future undertaking can be compared to Antarctica, home for many far-flung research stations. During summer months, roughly 5,000 people inhabit research outposts, a number that drops to approximately 1,000 in the winter.

Antarctica is governed by about 30 countries, all of which are parties of the 1959 Antarctic Treaty System. 

Can that bleak, standoffish polar scenery serve as a template for working on the moon, or even offer lessons on how best to cooperate in austere, remote environments?

Related: Cooperation on the moon: Are the Artemis Accords enough?

White Mars

A roundup of Antarctic activities includes the French-Italian Concordia research station. Occupants are subjected to near-complete seclusion from the world, and under hostile conditions. Those climes are just ideal for the European Space Agency (ESA). 

A multi-country organization, ESA has sponsored work at Concordia over the years. "Antarctic research at Concordia is helping humans adapt, mentally and physically, to a changing climate, a longer voyage in space, and eventually, life on another planet," notes ESA, giving it "analog" status and tagging the site as "White Mars."

There's also China's newly installed fifth scientific research station in Antarctica, the country's third all-year station in the region. It can accommodate up to 80 researchers, who will carry out atmospheric, oceanic, biological and ecological studies. 

The new Chinese complex builds on the four other Antarctic research stations; Changcheng and Zhongshan are all-year stations, Taishan and Kunlun are summer stations. 

As for its moon ambitions, China is already in deep space planning mode, with Russia seemingly tagging along, to deploy an International Lunar Research Station.

ESA-sponsored medical doctor Beth Healey at the Concordia station in Antarctica. During the stint, experiments were done to support long-duration space mission research. Crews are cut off from the world at Concordia without normal sunlight, among other stress factors.  (Image credit: ESA/IPEV/PNRA–B. Healy)

IceCube — a collaborative affair

Antarctica-situated science gear does pretty heady work, like spotting neutrinos — a fundamental but tricky to pin down particle.

Jim Madsen is the director of the Wisconsin IceCube Particle Astrophysics Center, or WIPAC. They operate the IceCube Neutrino Observatory - the first detector of its kind - designed to observe the cosmos from deep within the South Pole ice.

An international group of IceCube researchers perform scientific work using the facility, a collaborative affair. 

"The international treaty guiding activities in Antarctica can serve as a model for establishing a sustainable, successful international lunar base," Madsen told Space.com. Getting consensus on the range of possible projects, and then getting buy-in with real resources, helps ensure all partners stay committed, he said.

"Moving from exploration to a year round base to a platform for discovery was the path taken at the South Pole," said Madsen. "It is exciting to see similar progress in space."

The surface facility for the IceCube experiment, which is located under nearly 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) of ice in Antarctica. IceCube suggests ghostly neutrinos don't exist, but a new experiment says they do. (Image credit: Courtesy of IceCube Neutrino Observatory)

Geostrategic maneuvering

But for those countries looking to establish a long-term presence on the moon, there may be factors on that foreboding celestial real-estate that are similarly reflected in Antarctica. 

That's the perspective offered by Marigold Black, lead author of the RAND Corporation report "Antarctica at Risk: Geostrategic Maneuvering and the Future of the Antarctic Treaty System." The report was done as an output from a RAND think-tank project with Black moving on to her own venture, co-directing Norfolk. It provides high-level research and strategic advice to public and private sectors within Australia and the region.

"In the first instance, development of basing structures on the moon will likely generate, as in Antarctica, tensions over what it means to control territory, what activities are permitted on and around the bases, and what sovereignty means on such an alien landscape," Black told Space.com

Black said that one of the most prominent issues to develop around bases in Antarctica, and which is likely to translate to the lunar experience, "is the extension of the definitions of the terms 'scientific research' and 'peaceful purposes' in the context of activities undertaken there.

Particularly important to watch in moving forward on the moon, is how will countries conduct themselves? 

It's a domain where there is an immature system of governance and regulation, Black said, and where norm-development itself remains undeveloped.

"In the case of Antarctica, extreme conditions and geographical remoteness naturally inhibit the extent of human activities," said Black. "And these limitations also apply to the moon, and in a profound sense."

China's newly installed fifth scientific research station in Antarctica. (Image credit: China Central Television (CCTV))

Race to the bottom

Black highlighted one finding of the RAND study, and from an associated table-top exercise.

"Despite the altruistic origins and spirit of the Antarctic Treaty System," Black pointed out, "we found that participants representing the various States were readily given to move in their own self-interest once someone else moved." 

It was a race of sorts "to avoid any actual or perceived advantages that may be gained by the norm-breaching first mover," said Black.

Indeed, perceived weakness in the governance regime, including lack of enforcement mechanisms, could result in a "race to the bottom," Black senses, in terms of exploitative, environmentally-damaging, and militaristic behaviors. 

"The reality is, there is little in place in Antarctica to stop this from occurring, and arguably far less on the moon," Black said.

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Leonard David
Space Insider Columnist

Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as Space.com's Space Insider Columnist among his other projects, Leonard has authored numerous books on space exploration, Mars missions and more, with his latest being "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published in 2019 by National Geographic. He also wrote "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet" released in 2016 by National Geographic. Leonard  has served as a correspondent for SpaceNews, Scientific American and Aerospace America for the AIAA. He was received many awards, including the first Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History in 2015 at the AAS Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium. You can find out Leonard's latest project at his website and on Twitter.

  • Unclear Engineer
    The big difference between Antarctica and the Moon is that there will probably be some use of resources on the Moon, especially water ice if it can be found and extracted. So, if water ice is a rare, locally concentrated resource on the Moon, I expect there will be competition to control the deposits that are feasible to extract. That will probably be true if it is only used for local life support. It might get really nasty if it turns out to be useful for manufacturing rocket propellants for deeper space exploration. And, if the Moon ever gets used to build spacecraft, then locations with proximity to the necessary resources (metals, in particular, as well as water) might result in some real conflicts.

    In comparison, there are no resources in Antarctica that are being extracted for local uses. Water might be considered a "local resource" there, but it certainly is not rare, there.
    Reply
  • Atlan0001
    Life in Antarctica hasn't taken off in nova, hasn't expanded and never will, thank you the inevitable invincible philosophy, ideology, culture, and physics, of a stone-like Utopian totalitarianism in the unity of treaty states. In the case of Antarctica, maybe not such a bad deal.

    Earth-Life in the Space Frontier hasn't taken off in nova, hasn't expanded and never will, thank you the inevitable invincible philosophy, ideology, culture, and physics, of a stone-like Utopian totalitarianism in the unity of treaty states. In the case of the outer-space universe, the road to civilization's, probably mankind's, possibly life's, extinction on Earth.
    Reply
  • Unclear Engineer
    I'll disagree with Atlan0001's pronouncements.

    Life has not taken off in Antarctica because the environment there has not been conducive to human habitation. Similarly, Greenland did not develop into a self-sustaining colony of substantial duration because of the environment there. Both European and "Native American" groups had access to Greenland, so it is not a matter of bureaucracy that Greenland did not become an established community of any consequential duration.

    There are similar issues with the environments on the Moon, Mars, and even on space stations orbiting Earth and other solar system bodies. The environmental conditions are not what humans would seek to live in for purposes of raising a family and creating a social community in a place not controlled by other humans they disagree with. The drivers for occupation of such inhospitable places are different: scientific, resource mining, military advantage - all driven by societies located elsewhere, which will provide essential support to humans they station in those inhospitable places.

    I do not see a future where some family on Earth says "Let's pack-up and go to Mars, the land of opportunity, where we can enjoy freedom and prosperity." At least, not before the environment here on Earth has become so hellish that there would probably no longer be any opportunity to get to Mars.
    Reply
  • Atlan0001
    Unclear Engineer said:
    I'll disagree with Atlan0001's pronouncements.

    Life has not taken off in Antarctica because the environment there has not been conducive to human habitation. Similarly, Greenland did not develop into a self-sustaining colony of substantial duration because of the environment there. Both European and "Native American" groups had access to Greenland, so it is not a matter of bureaucracy that Greenland did not become an established community of any consequential duration.

    There are similar issues with the environments on the Moon, Mars, and even on space stations orbiting Earth and other solar system bodies. The environmental conditions are not what humans would seek to live in for purposes of raising a family and creating a social community in a place not controlled by other humans they disagree with. The drivers for occupation of such inhospitable places are different: scientific, resource mining, military advantage - all driven by societies located elsewhere, which will provide essential support to humans they station in those inhospitable places.

    I do not see a future where some family on Earth says "Let's pack-up and go to Mars, the land of opportunity, where we can enjoy freedom and prosperity." At least, not before the environment here on Earth has become so hellish that there would probably no longer be any opportunity to get to Mars.
    Unclear Engineer, not to put you down because there are just far too many like you in the world, but I understand only too well that you haven't read enough general and more specific histories, enough stories of peoples and personal stories deeply enough, to understand the physics, the needs and wants, of individuals and families and community groups displaced out on a alien, raw, harsh and forbidding new frontier. The only difference being they had the environment pre-ordered . . . whereas we have energy and energies in technology, AI, robotics, and other structural and infrastructural revolutionary evolved plant and insectoid-like (Space Age capable including protective) exoskeletal tools, complexities and reaches they did not have. We have the "due time" energy and need, the needs, wants, organs and the limbs to begin birthing out to the universe outside the nest . . . else energy to destroy the nest and the life within. The nature of "grow or die!"

    We, life from Earth, will be the spacefaring and living cellular life contained within a new level and order of evolving cellular structures and infrastructure of space-based Space Age life.
    Reply
  • Unclear Engineer
    Atlan0001, I am not accepting your readings of history as superior to mine, nor your understanding of the physics and engineering involved in living off-Earth. You have your opinion, and are welcome to it. But your denigration of others who do not agree with you is not appropriate.

    I have to wonder about your own contributions to achieving the future you say that others are preventing us from having. Do you just complain that we have not achieved what you think we should have achieved, or have you actively worked to make it happen, other than making posts on the Internet?
    Reply
  • Atlan0001
    Unclear Engineer said:
    Atlan0001, I am not accepting your readings of history as superior to mine, nor your understanding of the physics and engineering involved in living off-Earth. You have your opinion, and are welcome to it. But your denigration of others who do not agree with you is not appropriate.

    I have to wonder about your own contributions to achieving the future you say that others are preventing us from having. Do you just complain that we have not achieved what you think we should have achieved, or have you actively worked to make it happen, other than making posts on the Internet?
    At age 76 actively contribute how? other than contributing what money I can to the cause of opening space? I had two good careers on the edge, and in some aspects of them upon occasion even closer, to space operations.

    What you call my denigration of you was a denigration of your knowledge of history that you do not accept as being greater than yours. I've been at it as an enjoyed study for more than 70 of my 76, nearing 77 years, probably longer than you've been alive! The possible potential physics, and the difference between past and future conquest of frontiers, just as long!

    From what you often express I have to wonder about your own realizations and knowledge of the future, knowing from what you express you know so little of the past, a future that YOU say that others, like me, know nothing of so preventing mankind from having. So I do wonder, very much so, here, now ("out loud," so to speak)! From a perspective of open system, I challenge the very narrow-closed system view of space frontier, us in it, and attacks on opening the system wide open. I'm a tested "intuitive visual mathematician" which means nothing so much more nor less than I'm a good logician proven in my two careers and career fields. Combined with my lifelong reading, study, knowledge and sense of history, I can easily project, analyze and deduct, future trends from the flows. As the saying goes, those who don't really know history, who choose to be blind to its repetitions in large, are doomed to repeat it, apocalyptically. If I can do my own little piece, as small as it will and must be, for my children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren I have, to fight that, I will!
    Reply
  • Unclear Engineer
    The only thing that tells me is that your assumption about my age is incorrect.

    I am not going to get into credential comparison with you, because anybody can falsely claim anything on the Internet. I am just saying that your constant assertions that humans will move into space like we moved over the hospitable lands of the Earth are not being backed-up with anything other than your personal statements that you know more about history than the rest of us, so we should take your word for it. I am simply not convinced that you know anything more than I know, and suspect you actually know far less. Your posts would be more impressive if they contained some data and logic to support them. Tell me something relevant that I don't already know, or show me some logic that I have not previously considered, and you will start to make an impression on the way I view things.

    Unless you start doing that, I am not going to waste effort trying to have a logical discussion with you. However, I may again post disagreement with your assertions when I think they are incorrect - but I will explain why I think they are incorrect when I do so. I expect that others reading such posts will find mine more convincing. I do not care whether you are convinced.
    Reply
  • Atlan0001
    Since I have far more confirming, allying and paralleling sources quoted and pointed to in my threads and posts than you do, you have a big problem with your spiel attempting to get personal. A very big problem. And you are the one who made it personal after I went after what you said as not being right, not even being wrong -- as the saying goes, just....

    Enough said. I'm done with it.
    Reply