The United States' space policy threatens the safe and sustainable development of the final frontier, two researchers argue.
The U.S. is pushing national rather than multilateral regulation of space mining, an approach that could have serious negative consequences, astronomer Aaron Boley and political scientist Michael Byers, both of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, write in a "Policy Forum" piece that was published online today (Oct. 8) in the journal Science.
Boley and Byers cite the 2015 passage of the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, which explicitly granted American companies and citizens the right to mine and sell space resources. That right was affirmed this past April in an executive order signed by President Donald Trump, they note.
The researchers also point to NASA's announcement last month that it intends to buy moon dirt and soil collected by private companies, and its plan to sign bilateral agreements with international partners that want to participate in the agency's Artemis program of crewed lunar exploration.
Artemis, one of NASA's highest-profile projects, aims to return astronauts to the moon in 2024 and establish a long-term, sustainable human presence on and around Earth's nearest neighbor by the end of the decade. Making all of this happen will require the extensive use of lunar resources, such as the water ice that lurks on the permanently shadowed floors of polar craters, NASA officials have said.
Boley and Byers take special aim at the planned bilateral agreements, known as the Artemis Accords. In promoting them, the U.S. "is overlooking best practice with regard to the sustainable development of space," the researchers write.
"Instead of pressing ahead unilaterally and bilaterally, the United States should support negotiations on space mining within the UN [United Nations] Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, the same multilateral body that drafted the five major space treaties of the 1960s and '70s," they write in the Science piece. (The most important of the five is the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which forms the basis of international space law.)
"Meanwhile, NASA’s actions must be seen for what they are — a concerted, strategic effort to redirect international space cooperation in favor of short-term U.S. commercial interests, with little regard for the risks involved," Boley and Byers add.
The researchers worry that the U.S. is setting an unfortunate precedent for other countries to follow, and that space mining and other exploration activities may therefore proceed in a somewhat careless and chaotic fashion in the not-too-distant future.
"That's kind of our worst-case scenario — that you have all of these different national regulations, and they can vary greatly, they allow for 'flag of convenience,' they cause disregard of the environment, large-scale pollution of orbital environments, of the surface of the moon in terms of waste materials and so forth," Boley told Space.com. "That's what we're worried about."
He cited the growing space-junk problem as a cautionary tale. For decades, spacefaring nations have been licensing launches internally, without much international coordination, cooperation or long-term planning. In recent years, low-Earth orbit has become crowded enough with satellites and hunks of debris that collisions are a real concern. For example, the International Space Station has had to maneuver itself away from potential impacts three times so far in 2020 alone.
Not everyone agrees with Boley and Byers' assessment of U.S. space policy and its possible consequences. For instance, Mike Gold, the acting associate administrator for NASA's Office of International and Interagency Relations, takes serious issue with the duo's characterization of the Artemis Accords.
For starters, Gold said, that characterization is based on incomplete information, because the Artemis Accords haven't been released yet. NASA is still evaluating and incorporating feedback on the text from its international partners.
"The Accords are a far better document because of the international feedback," Gold told Space.com.
Gold also said that Boley and Byers' description of the planned bilateral agreements is wrong in multiple ways. As an example, he pointed to the following passage in the new "Policy Forum" piece: "The Artemis Accords are to include recognition of a right to commercial space mining subject to national regulation only (i.e., no need for a new multilateral agreement), as well as the right of companies to declare 'safety zones' around their operations to exclude other actors."
The Accords do make clear that the extraction and use of space resources are permitted, Gold said. But that's basically all they say on the topic, he stressed; there's nothing in the agreements about recognizing a right to commercial mining subject to national regulation only. And the Artemis Accords will be government-to-government agreements, so the part about companies declaring safety zones doesn't make much sense, Gold said.
In addition, "safety zones are simply an area where there should be notification as to what a country is doing and where it's conducting activities, and an obligation to coordinate to avoid harmful interference, as required by the Outer Space Treaty," he said. "To exclude actors from any zone of operation would be a violation of the Outer Space Treaty. And it's certainly not in the Artemis Accords, which is grounded in the Outer Space Treaty."
The coming agreements will give some much-needed teeth to the mostly unenforceable Outer Space Treaty, which proponents of multilateral agreements should appreciate, Gold added.
"The Artemis Accords, for the first time, actually create consequences for not following the Outer Space Treaty — that any nation that violates the principles of the Outer Space Treaty would not be able to participate in the Artemis program," he said.
The Accords do go beyond the Outer Space Treaty in some areas, Gold said. For example, the agreements will require participating nations to publicly release scientific data and ensure the interoperability of their hardware with that of NASA and other partners.
But overall, the Accords will reinforce and implement the 1967 treaty's principles, he added, stressing that they're "intended to establish a peaceful, transparent, safe and prosperous future not only for NASA and its partners but for all of humanity."
All of us should get a chance to see the Artemis Accords before too much longer; Gold said NASA aims to release them "soon."
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.